San Juan County grapples with transfer of state trust lands

Leadership with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Land Administration (SITLA) appeared before the San Juan County Commission on May 3 to hear input regarding the proposed land swap of 131,000 acres located inside the Bears Ears National Monument. 
Members of the public who spoke at the meeting were largely opposed to any swap of lands outside San Juan County.
The Utah School and 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.
The 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 Bears Ears monument.
The proposed map remains in draft form, as the swap needs approval from both the Utah State Legislature and the United States Congress before it can be finalized.
At the May 3 meeting, the new director of SITLA Michelle McConkie shared the latest draft map for the swap and added “San Juan County by the time we add additional lands would be around 35,000 acres that would be added that are currently BLM Lands.”
The latest draft is an increase in acreage from a March proposal that would have kept 19,000 acres in San Juan County.
Among the acres identified are several places in northern San Juan County that SITLA oil and gas officials have identified as being rich in minerals
Following SITLA’s presentation regarding the latest draft around a dozen San Juan County residents spoke out against any land swaps as part of the public comment during the May 3 San Juan County Commission meeting.
Among those speaking out was Utah Representative Phil Lyman of Blanding. Lyman said that the dispersed pattern of SITLA lands dotted amongst federal lands acts as a safety net. Allowing the state to use the leverage of its dispersed trust land against agendas in the federal government that can change each election.
“We need SITLA to defend us,” Lyman said, “If those parcels are devalued by the existence of a monument then I would like SITLA to take some of their $3.5 billion to help us fight the monument.”
Several ranchers spoke out at the meeting expressing the importance of SITLA land to their operations.
“SITLA sections are the lifeblood of what we do and how we ranch,” rancher Tyler Ivins explained. “The access and ability to manage those is how we are able to ranch in this area.”
While ranchers in San Juan County may graze livestock on federal lands managed by the BLM, leases through SITLA allows for more advanced developments such as creating a well and building a coral to act as a home base for operations.
SITLA Deputy Assistant Director Chris Fausett shared that in the final federal bill to approve the land exchange SITLA will keep language to protect ranchers.
“Once those become BLM lands, the bill requires that the BLM gives those permitees a preference right to renew those grazing permits. And it also states that any grazing improvements they have, corrals, wells or whatever, that those have to be honored, they can’t do away with those.”
Rancher Tiffany Dalton shared her concerns regarding what she characterized as the difficulties to work with the BLM as opposed to SITLA.
“I don’t know if people understand as a grazer and a rancher how it is to work with BLM but we need friends, and we feel like SITLA has an abundance of power right now.”
Members of the public also shared concerns over the loss of economic development tools in the county. San Juan School Board President Lori Maughan spoke representing the board as they signed a letter opposed to land swaps in the county. 
School board member Merri Shumway pointed out that school district education funds come from income tax, property tax, and federal impact aid. With private lands making up 8-percent of San Juan County, about 400,000 acres, Shumway added concerns about the tax burden on such a small percent of county land.
“We’re one of the poorest–Garfield may be as poor as we are now–and a lot of that has to do with the land grab and the SITLA sections all being traded out of Garfield County.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams recognized SITLA’s mandate to benefit their trust including public education in the state. Adams added his thoughts on where he would like to see SITLA lands be if swapped.
“I think if I was king of SITLA today I would ask you to trade every pink parcel in Bears Ears for someplace in San Juan County and maybe the northern part is more reasonable because of the number of artifacts in the southern part of the county. It would be more accessible to drilling if it was traded out in the northern part of the county.”
Adams added that SITLA might consider swapping lands near Blanding along Highway 95 to create infrastructure such as a visitor center, and other services to serve as an entrance corridor into the Bears Ears National Monument.
McConkie “What you’re talking about is a great example of how our interests can align because we also want there to be development.”
Fausett highlighted land swaps in northeastern San Juan County including the Dry Valley and Lisbon Valley areas. 
“These are areas that have been identified that are pretty rich in minerals, as far as potash, oil and gas, copper.”
McConkie added that gathering large blocks of SITLA lands in that area of San Juan County could make the area more appealing for mineral extraction operations.
Fausett also explained that even some of the money earned from acres in other counties in the state could benefit San Juan County. A part of SITLA’s statute called the land exchange distribution account gives a portion of revenue from mineral developments to the county that was part of the swap. 
“In the Grand Staircase exchange that, we did 20 years ago we acquired some really lucrative oil and gas targets in Carbon County that brought probably 1 billion into the trust and a significant part of that actually went back to the counties that gave up land in that exchange to help them.”
Still, residents expressed anxiety regarding a net loss of around 100,000 acres of state trust lands from San Juan County. 
County resident Keele Johnson asked SITLA to take their time on the swap.
“Why are you in such a hurry, there is no reason. BLM wants this land, then don’t give it to them, they’ll raise their price.”
SITLA staff emphasized that they are still receiving input from concerned citizens and groups. 
SITLA staff also made a visit to the Grand County Commission on May 3. Members of the Grand County Commission were opposed to adding the proposed 14,000 acres of SITLA lands to Grand County.

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