The Utah legislature has always approved large land deals that state trustees arrange with the federal government, which has yielded tremendous gains for the school trust fund, which derives significant income from these federally managed lands.
Since the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) was formed in 1994, the agency has completed five major swaps, trading its “checkerboard” sections from an ocean of state land in sensitive locations like Grand Staircase or the Utah Test and Training Track . In return, the agency has acquired mineral-rich land in locations more suitable for mining, leading to economic activity that helps both create rural jobs and fund schools, officials say.
But in the last session, lawmakers rejected a trade in state land within Bears Ears National Monument, a move that could delay or even nullify what may be the most lucrative land swap in SITLA’s history.
SITLA officials see the failure of HJR16, a resolution needed to move the exchange forward, as a blow to their mission, and it has prompted a backlash from public education advocates.
“On behalf of the trust beneficiaries, I can tell you that we are deeply concerned,” said Tim Donaldson, director of the Utah Land Trusts Protection and Advocacy Office. “We want to make sure there is an understanding that stopping or even delaying these exchanges would mean significant costs and opportunities for public schools and other beneficiaries. In these uncertain times, it would be a mistake to turn down opportunities that could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars for the Trust.”
Under state law, any exchange of state land exceeding 500 acres must be approved by the Legislature, either by resolution or action of the Legislative Management Committee. In recent years, SITLA has quietly arranged a deal with the Department of the Interior to trade 160,000 acres of state land for 142,000 acres of state land scattered across the state in 19 counties, primarily Grand, Emery, San Juan and Millard.
SITLA officials are now urging legislative leadership to take up the matter at the April 13 Administrative Committee meeting. Prompt approval is essential to get the proposed swap before Congress in time to win passage by the end of that session, they say. Agency officials fear any delay would set the deal back seven years or more, as has happened with previous swaps.
Such barter transactions must be value for value rather than acre for acre and therefore require complicated valuations.
Sponsored by Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, HJR16 vacated the Utah House but died without a Senate hearing.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, who voted in favor of the resolution, and Hawkes did not respond to voice messages seeking comment on SITLA’s concerns.
In the legislative debate, lawmakers’ key question focused on whether the swap would undermine Utah’s upcoming lawsuit aimed at reversing President Joe Biden’s decision last October to place the Bears Ears memorial near its original 1.3 Restore millions of acres in San Juan County. The defense in this pending lawsuit could point to the swap as evidence that Utah approves of the monument’s new boundaries.
But SITLA general counsel Mike Johnson claims the swap would not affect the state’s legal case, which is being handled by outside law firm Consovoy McCarthy. He says the swap is good business for the state, regardless of whether monument boundaries remain in place or not.
“We’ve done a lot of work over the past year putting the pieces together and negotiating very favorable terms. It is important to seize this opportunity. We’ve seen examples in other states where replacements have been delayed, focus has been lost, federal priorities have changed, and school states have been stranded for a decade or more,” Johnson said. “We hope there is no fear that the exchange will conflict with the memorial lawsuit, as the issues are different and the exchange and lawsuit may run in parallel.”
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, is a leading opponent of the proposed exchange, which he claims understaffed San Juan County. As San Juan County Commissioner in 2016, he campaigned against President Barack Obama’s original naming of Bears Ears.
“Whoever controls the country controls the economy, he controls the people,” Lyman said. “If you take those sections … and move them to a ‘more productive place,’ you can get the kids out of that county in 20 years and send them to that more productive place to get jobs. That’s not fair.”
But Dave Ure, the director of the state’s Trust Lands Administration, did everything possible to ensure that the swap left as much trust land as possible in San Juan County and in places that could be developed, such as lands outside of Blanding and nearby of the county’s uranium processing plants.
SITLA’s Bears Ears holdings are rich in archaeological treasures, scenic beauty and non-revenue generating value. These farms generate $80,000 annually, mostly in the form of grazing fees. While the lands the agency would acquire would bring in millions in revenue if they produce valuable minerals, according to Ure.
“Why would any rural district not want this economic development?” the director asked the legislature at a committee meeting.
In SITLA’s sixth major land swap with Bureau Land Management, the state would relinquish almost all of its holdings within Bears Ears, plus an additional 30,000 acres elsewhere. According to Johnson, it would keep part of its land within the memorial outside of Bluff, where it is developing a solar farm.
In return, SITLA would receive federal land with good potential for uranium, lithium, helium, potash, and oil and gas. In government hands, these resources would be much more likely to be tapped.
In SITLA’s most recent swap, approved by Congress under the Dingell Act of 2019, SITLA is trading 115,500 acres, primarily in Emery County, for 98,600 acres in 17 counties. That deal, which is almost complete, was approved by the Legislative Management Committee in 2018 by an 11-4 vote.
The Dingell Act created new wilderness areas and conservation areas around San Rafael Swell, Labyrinth Canyon, and Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, among other places valued for their recreation and natural attributes.
Regarding the Bears Ears exchange, Wayne County Ure commissioners specifically asked about the inclusion of state land near Capitol Reef National Park during a commission meeting last year. Their hope was that SITLA could develop the land for camping, which is in short supply inside the park, which saw a record 1.4 million visitors last year, more than double the number seen in 2013.
Packages that meet this need are now included in the proposed swap.
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