Here’s the land SITLA officials want to swap with the feds for property inside Bears Ears
The Utah Legislature has consistently approved major land swaps that state trust officials arrange with the federal government, which has generated huge gains for the school’s trust fund that draws significant revenues from these state-managed lands.
Since the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, was established in 1994, the agency has successfully completed five major swaps, swapping its “checkerboard” sections across an ocean of federal lands in sensitive locations, such as Grand Staircase or the Utah Test and Training Range. In return, the agency has acquired mineral-rich land in locations more suitable for extraction, resulting in economic activity that contributes to both rural job creation and school funding, according to the sources. responsible.
But in the past session, lawmakers have balked at a trade involving state land inside Bears Ears National Monument, a move that could delay or even scuttle what could be the most lucrative land swap ever. in the history of SITLA.
SITLA officials see the failure of HJR16, a resolution needed to allow the exchange to go forward, as a blow to their mission, and it has prompted a backlash from defenders of the public education.
“On behalf of the beneficiaries of the trust, I can tell you that we are deeply concerned,” said Tim Donaldson, director of the Utah Land Trust Protection and Advocacy Office. “We want to make sure it is understood that stopping or even postponing this exchange would result in significant lost costs and opportunities for public schools and other beneficiaries. In these uncertain times, giving up opportunities that could represent hundreds of millions of dollars for the trust would be a mistake. »
Under state law, any exchange of state lands exceeding 500 acres must be approved by the legislature, either by resolution or by action of the Legislative Management Committee. Over the past few years, SITLA has quietly reached a deal with the Department of the Interior to swap 160,000 state acres for 142,000 acres of federal land scattered across the state in 19 counties, primarily Grand, Emery, San Juan and Millard.
SITLA officials are now lobbying legislative leaders to address the issue at the April 13 management committee meeting. Prompt approval is essential for the proposed exchange to be presented to Congress in time to pass by the end of this session, they say. Agency officials fear that any delay could set the deal back by seven years or more, as has been the case with past exchanges.
Such exchanges must be value for value, rather than acre for acre, and therefore require complicated valuations.
Sponsored by Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, HJR16 cleared the Utah house but died in the Senate without a hearing.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, who voted for the resolution, and Hawkes did not respond to voicemail messages seeking comment on SITLA’s concerns.
In the legislative debate, the main question from lawmakers has centered on whether the swap would jeopardize Utah’s upcoming lawsuit to overturn President Joe Biden’s decision last October to restore the Bears Ears monument near of its original 1.3 million acres in San Juan County. The defense in this ongoing lawsuit could point to the exchange as evidence that Utah approves of the monument’s new boundaries.
But SITLA general counsel Mike Johnson argues the swap would not affect the state’s legal file, which is being handled by outside law firm Consovoy McCarthy. He says the exchange is a good deal for the state, whether or not the monument’s boundaries are respected.
“We have worked very hard over the past year to put the pieces in place and negotiate very favorable terms. It is essential to capitalize on this opportunity. We’ve seen examples in other states where exchanges have been delayed, focus has been lost, federal priorities have shifted, and school grounds have been stuck for a decade or more,” Johnson said. “We hope there is no concern that the exchange will conflict with the monument lawsuit because the issues are separate, and the exchange and the lawsuit can proceed in parallel.”
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, is a leading opponent of the proposed trade, which he says San Juan County misses. As San Juan County Commissioner in 2016, he fought President Barack Obama’s original Bears Ears designation.
“Who controls the land, controls the economy, they control the people,” Lyman said. “If you take these sections…and move them to a ‘more productive place’, then 20 years from now you can get the kids out of this county and send them to this more productive place to find jobs.” It is not fair.”
But Dave Ure, director of state trust land administration, went out of his way to make sure the swap left as much trust land as possible in San Juan County and places that could be developed, such as land just outside of Blanding and surrounding county uranium. – treatment facilities.
SITLA’s Bears Ears holdings are rich in archaeological treasures, scenic beauty and value that does not generate revenue. These farms produce $80,000 a year, mostly in the form of grazing royalties. While the land the agency would acquire would yield millions in revenue if it produced valuable minerals, according to Ure.
“Why wouldn’t a rural county want this economic development?” the director asked lawmakers during a committee meeting.
In what would be SITLA’s sixth major land exchange with the Bureau Land Management, the state would relinquish nearly all of its properties inside Bears Ears, plus an additional 30,000 acres elsewhere. He would keep some of his land inside the monument outside Bluff where he is developing a solar farm, according to Johnson.
In exchange, SITLA would get federal lands with good potential for uranium, lithium, helium, potash, and oil and gas. In the hands of the state, these resources would be much more likely to be developed.
In SITLA’s latest exchange, authorized by Congress under the 2019 Dingell Act, SITLA is trading 115,500 acres, mostly in Emery County, for 98,600 acres in 17 counties. This agreement, which is almost final, was approved by the Legislative Management Committee in an 11-4 vote in 2018.
The Dingell Act established new wilderness and conservation areas around San Rafael Swell, Labyrinth Canyon, and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry and other places valued for recreation and natural attributes.
Regarding the Bears Ears swap, Wayne County commissioners specifically asked Ure at a commission meeting last year to include federal lands near Capitol Reef State Park. Their hope was that SITLA could develop the ground for camping, which is rare inside the park which saw a record 1.4 million last year, more than double its attendance in 2013.
Packages adapted to this need are now included in the proposed exchange.
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