Utah approves transfer of trust lands from Bears Ears

Members of the Utah Legislative Management Committee unanimously approved support for a deal that would swap over 130,000 acres of state trust lands in San Juan County for federally managed lands in the state at an interim meeting on May 17.

With the approval from Utah legislators, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) now need approval from the United States Congress to finalize the sixth large land swap between Utah and the federal government.

The approval given by the state legislative management committee is good for one year, meaning congress will need to finalize the swap within the year or the deal will need approval from the state again.

The proposed exchange would 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 National Monument.

SITLA manages parcels of trust lands that were placed evenly throughout the state in 1896.

Revenue earned from the sale or lease of those lands is earmarked for funding public education.

Following the creation of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in the early 1990’s SITLA exchanged lands in Garfield county for other federal lands throughout the state.

Proponents of the land swap point to a substantial increase in SITLA funds as a result of the development of swapped lands, while opponents argue that the swap harmed economic development within Garfield County.

The Bears Ears land exchange would give federal agencies management of 161,000 acres in Utah (including 131,000 in San Juan County) currently managed by SITLA.

In exchange 164,000 acres currently managed by federal agencies would be given to SITLA for economic development, including 49,000 acres in San Juan County.

SITLA leadership attended a San Juan County Commission meeting on May 3 where around a dozen county residents voiced their displeasure for the exchange. Including ranchers, members of the school board, and Utah House Representative Phil Lyman (R) of Blanding.

Speaking to the legislative management committee SITLA director Michelle McConkie says their organization has been particularly sensitive to San Juan County who would be losing the most SITLA lands in the exchange.

“We have been able to find very good targets in the northern part in Lisbon Valley, Spanish Valley, and other areas in San Juan County with mineral potential and some residential development potential as well. So we’ll be picking up over 49,000 acres of land in San Juan County and the land we’re acquiring presents significantly greater economic development potential than SITLA’s current landholdings in the area.”

In addition to more acreage to develop into residential in Spanish Valley, McConkie says the ability to block together land in northern San Juan County could result in mineral development opportunities. The swap would also give SITLA areas near Blanding that they have identified as possible areas for recreation and tourism development related to the monument.

Speaking at the hearing Utah House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, (R) of Hooper, thanked SITLA for increasing the acreage in San Juan County from what he recalled as 10-16,000 acres in an early draft to the proposed 49,000.

Schultz expressed that in discussion with his house colleagues most agreed that they’d rather not be in the position to consider the exchange as the result of the creation of the monument.

Schultz also asked McConkie why lands previously drafted in the southern part of San Juan County had been excluded from the swap.

McConkie explained that the requirement of cultural resource surveys before developing in Southern San Juan County can be quite expansive.

“This is an area with a lot of identified, already known, and even unidentified cultural resources and archeological artifacts. We’ve looked at some targets very closely and these targets have a lot of these cultural resource issues. For example, there's one area we looked at that actually has human burial sites.”

McConkie said the high costs to identify and document cultural resources and then mitigate or avoid those resources can make projects economically unfeasible on those lands.

Schultz asked that SITLA continue to work with San Juan County to address as many concerns as possible.

“Again none of us want to be in this situation but given our hands are being forced by the federal government. Anything we can do to mitigate some of these concerns is much appreciated.”

McConkie shared that SITLA plans to visit San Juan County again soon.

Members of the Grand County Commission have been opposed to the exchange, as they do not want to see additional SITLA lands in their county. The Times-Independent reports that the commission may lobby the U.S. Department of the Interior regarding the swap.

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