Trust Lands in Bears Ears total 131,000 acres, may be swapped out for public land elsewhere
By David Boyle
The future of 131,000 acres of state trust land within the Bears Ears National Monument remains uncertain, but a proposed exchange could result in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands becoming more developable state trust lands throughout Utah, in exchange for strengthened federal control within the monument.
The State Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is seeking to exchange 131,000 acres of land currently within the Bears Ears monument boundaries with parcels of federal BLM lands elsewhere in Utah.
While the negotiation map is reportedly at about 90-percent clarity, at this moment 19,000 acres would remain in San Juan County, while 112,000, or 85-percent of trust lands in Bears Ears, would be swapped for other areas in the state.
Possible land swaps within San Juan County include parcels of land in Spanish Valley, near Halls Crossing, and west of Blanding. Those and other exchanges all make up part of the 19,000 acres that would remain in San Juan County.
In exchange the 131,000 acres of trust land currently within the Bears Ears National Monument boundary would be managed by the federal government under the same regulations as the rest of the monument.
When Utah received statehood in 1896, parcels of land called trust land were placed evenly throughout Utah. Revenue earned from the sale or lease of those lands is earmarked for funding of public education.
A local example of how the trust lands work is the new Spanish Valley Clinic on the corner of Spanish Valley Drive & Airport Road.
The money used by San Juan Health to purchase the land their new clinic sits on from SITLA was placed in the $3.3 billion state trust fund, interest earned from that fund is then used to fund education in schools throughout the state.
Utah schools have, amongst other projects, used the money to buy laptops for students or to pay for part-time or intern positions.
Similar sales, leases and development of SITLA lands throughout Utah provides funds for education throughout the state.
With the creation of Bears Ears National Monument, SITLA has some 130,000 acres of trust lands located within the monument that they view as having a reduced opportunity for development.
SITLA believes the exchange will greatly improve the value of lands they manage. The entity reports earning $80,000 from the 130,000 acres in Bears Ears last year, while they estimate the value of the land they would receive in exchange at $155 million.
While SITLA leaders have said they see the exchange as a win for Utah students, some elected leaders in San Juan County disagree.
Discussing the exchange during the state legislative session Representative Phil Lyman (Republican) of Blanding asked why SITLA is entering the negotiation with the federal government with the idea that the current lands are not worth much.
“To say that these are marginal lands goes contrary to what other people see in them, that say they are invaluable, that they are priceless lands.”
Lyman also says that the exchange of trust lands out of rural counties harms the opportunity for growth and economic survival in those counties.
“If you take these sections out of a county, like say Garfield county, and move them to a more ‘productive place’. Then in 20 years, you can also take the kids out of that county and send them to that more ‘productive place’ to get jobs.”
Exchanges of 500 acres or more in the state of Utah requires approval from the state legislature. That approval was attempted with House Joint Resolution 16. The resolution passed the state house but it did not receive approval from the state senate as it did not receive a vote on the last day of the session.
With the 45-day session over, SITLA can still get their needed state legislature approval through the Legislative Management Committee, which is set to meet next on April 13.
Other local elected officials have spoken out against the exchange as well.
In February, the non-partisan San Juan School Board approved a letter to SITLA requesting that lands exchanged remain in San Juan County, rather than be moved to other areas of the state.
The letter reads in part: “The SJSD Board feels strongly that when Trust Lands are traded out of San Juan County, potential economic growth and future employment opportunities for the citizens of the county are forfeited, negatively impacting the local tax base which supports our schools and communities.”
The letter was approved unanimously by the board.
A similar land exchange process was completed with the creation of the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. At the time the state trust had $50 million in it. SITLA says the exchange brought them a value of $750 million worth of lands, and the state trust now holds nearly $3.4 billion.
A large amount of acreage could be coming to Grand County as reported by The Times-Independent. Additional information from the Grand County Commission’s initial discussions about the exchange can be found in the March 17 issue of The Times-Independent.
Speaking at the state legislature HJR 16 author Timothy Hawkes (R) of Centerville said the deal is making lemons of lemonade.
“The silver lining is that the lands that are in San Juan will be swapped for other lands in San Juan that have development potential. I think it is a deal for the citizens of San Juan County and it's a really good deal for the state as a whole.”
Still Lyman says there are current needs for dispersed land in the county, as they provide space for ranchers to build water troughs and corrals for cattle that graze on the land. Lyman also says there are other options for possible future investments.
“I’ve talked about some of the natural resource companies that are going out to buy up carbon sequestration lands, to trade (state trust lands) out or to sell them, to grow at whatever the treasury fund grows at, as opposed to real estate, I think it’s short-sighted.”
Among the proposed 19,000 acres of federal lands to become SITLA lands include some acreage west of Blanding, near Halls Crossing and in Spanish Valley.