Utah should approve the latest in SITLA land swaps with the feds, the Editorial Board writes

The political battle over Bears Ears National Monument should not be allowed to stop this win-win deal.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bears Ears buttes April 10, 2021.

A few members of the Utah Legislature might get a real thrill out of thinking they have really stuck it to the feds if a deal the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration wants to make with the U.S. Interior Department falls through.

But the truth is that few people who work in Washington are likely to even notice if a proposed swap of SITLA-owned land inside the restored Bears Ears National Monument for federally owned land elsewhere in the state doesn’t happen.

If the Utah state agency that exists to turn land into money for public education isn’t allowed to complete the deal, the only losers will be the state’s kids.

That’s why the Legislative Management Committee should exercise the power it has to ratify the deal — a deal the Utah House approved by a large bipartisan margin in the recent legislative session but that was never taken up in the Senate — when it meets next month.

SITLA and Interior have worked out a complex deal that would trade 160,000 acres the state agency owns within the boundaries of the national monument for 142,000 acres of federal land scattered across 19 Utah counties. The land SITLA would get, both sides agree, is better suited for producing revenue, specifically from mineral resources found there.

It’s obvious. The point of a national monument is to preserve lands of natural beauty and cultural significance. The mission statement of SITLA is to produce income for the state’s public schools. There is no universe in which the trade does not make sense.

Except, maybe, in the Utah Legislature and elsewhere among the state’s political class, where people are still smarting over the fact that Democratic President Joe Biden last year unshrunk the national monument that President Donald Trump made such a big deal out of reducing by some 85% four years before. The fear in that corner of the state, apparently, is that if the SITLA land swap is allowed to go through it would somehow be read as state approval of Biden’s action.

Of course, the state ought to approve of Biden’s action. It’s the kind of thing a public-lands state such as Utah should see as an obvious move to protect lands that are not only held sacred by several Native American nations but that also, just by the way, wouldn’t be that much of a cash cow even if the Indigenous people weren’t involved and didn’t care.

But even if Biden is wrong, and even if the U.S. Supreme Court eventually agrees that he is wrong, the land swap would still be a good idea. All the affected property that now sits inside the monument is good for, from an extractive economy point of view, is some grazing rights now worth maybe $80,000 a year. But, from a cultural and natural wonder point of view, it’s priceless.

And the lands SITLA stands to get in return are seen to be rich in uranium, lithium, helium, potash and oil and gas.

Ever since it was created in 1994, SITLA has been in the land swap business. It has pulled off five major deals with the federal government, deals in which each side came out ahead. Over the years, the federal government has received land that enhanced national monuments, parks and military installations while the state came away with property it leased or sold for development.

It’s sort of like a team that really needs a shortstop giving up a relief pitcher that will plug a hole in the other team’s bullpen. A win-win.

There is some sense of urgency here, as SITLA wants the deal approved at the state level in time for it to also be ratified by Congress during its current session. If that doesn’t happen then, the concern is that it could get put off for years, as the whole process goes back to square one and through the long and complex process of land appraisals necessary to establish that the value of property swapped on each side is equal, even if the number of acres isn’t.

The Legislative Management Committee’s next scheduled meeting is April 13. That’s plenty of time for Utah voters to let the members of that panel know that they want this deal approved.