San Juan County Commission addresses proposed swap of SITLA land currently in Bears Ears National Monument
By David Boyle
Members of the San Juan County Commission received an update on the Bears Ears SITLA exchange, discussed the result of their performance audit, and approved a variety of grants at their latest meeting.
At their April 18 meeting, members of the San Juan County Commission received a visit from the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) to update the commission on the proposed land swap of SITLA lands in Bears Ears National Monument.
The proposed exchange would see SITLA lands located within the monument traded for other land in the state managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
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 across the state.
Following the creation of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in the 1990’s, SITLA exchanged lands in Garfield County for other federal lands throughout the state. SITLA has executed other exchanges since.
The proposed exchange between SITLA and the federal government has been in the works since the Bears Ears monument designation. Last spring and summer, SITLA staff held open houses in San Juan and Grand counties to hear concerns from citizens regarding the swap.
Speaking before the San Juan County Commission, SITLA Director Michelle McConkie shared that they believe the swap is getting close.
A memorandum of understanding between Utah Governor Spencer Cox and Secretary of the Department of Interior Deb Haaland has allowed federal agencies and SITLA to get close to finalizing the swap, which requires approval from Congress.
“We’re very close,” said McConkie. “We feel like we’re hopefully within a matter of weeks for introduction. We think its going to be one of those that has support from both sides of the aisle.”
The proposed swap will see 130,000 acres in the Bears Ears National Monument currently managed by SITLA turned over to federal agencies, as well as 30,000 other acres throughout the state.
In exchange, 52,000 acres currently managed by the BLM in San Juan County will become SITLA managed, with 111,000 additional acres gained by SITLA in other areas of the state.
More than 52,000 acres in San Juan County is an increase from a 2022 proposal of 49,000 and a significant increase from earlier drafts that included keeping less than 20,000 acres in the county.
“About one-third of that (swap) is staying in San Juan County,” said McConkie, “That is actually the largest we have ever stayed in one county. This is going to be our sixth largest land exchange and that’s the most we’ve ever stayed in one county.”
McConkie reports through open houses last year they heard concerns from county residents about the land swap. While the swap will mean less total SITLA acreage in the county, the administration believes the trade will boost the local economy.
“The acreage that’s being traded into has a lot of mineral potential in Lisbon Valley,” explained McConkie. “There’s potash, lithium, uranium, oil and gas, copper, a lot of different minerals.
“...We’ve had industry already approach us for some of this land. It’s because they’d rather work on trust lands we don’t have all the federal regulations that they do when its managed by BLM so they want to work on trust lands.”
While the largest land mass areas to become SITLA lands are in northeastern San Juan County, there are also additional lands to be added west and north of Blanding, south of Bluff, near Cal Black Airport in western San Juan County, as well as additional land in Spanish Valley.
Concern with the swap has been expressed by ranchers who have leased SITLA parcels surrounded by federally managed lands located in the national monument.
These areas have had significant range improvements, including water wells and corrals for livestock operations.
SITLA Surface Managing Director Chris Fausett shared they heard the concerns and have worked to provide protections to the SITLA lands that will become federally managed.
“There’s several, 30 or so, water wells that they’ve been working to complete on those scattered trustland sections that are really critical to the livestock operations,” said Fausett.
“So we’ve been working to make sure that those get drilled before the land transfer happens. We also put some language into our agreement with the Department of Interior, that if by some chance some of those wells don’t get completed before the lands are exchanged that they will be able to complete those.”
Fausett also reported that SITLA has worked with the Utah Public Lands Policy coordinating office, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure access for ranchers to those improvements, as well as honoring the SITLA grazing permits moving forward.
Fausett reports on the other side of the swap, current grazing permit holders on BLM lands that become SITLA lands will have the remainder of their leases honored, with permit holders given non-compete preference to renew their leases for two terms on SITLA lands, or up to 30 years.
From then, SITLA will consider the highest offer for use of their land to benefit their fund for public education.
Additionally, SITLA staff reports working with the Utah Attorney General’s office to be assured the land swap will not impact the state lawsuit challenging the Biden Administration designation of expanded Bears Ears National Monument boundaries.
While the county commissioners asked some clarifying questions from SITLA staff, they ended their remarks with thanks for their work.
Commissioner Sylvia Stubbs noted the challenges related to having a small portion of developable land in the county.
“We are supposed to take care of a vast county with programs and a big school in acreage,” said Stubbs. “The buses have roads to maintain to go so its an expensive way for our schools. As we develop these plans, we need to think about the future of those schools.”
Commissioner Bruce Adams also offered his thanks for the agency response to public concerns.
“I want to thank SITLA for really listening to my complaints and my outrage about all of this over the last six or eight months,” said Adams. “I appreciate you working with us, and I appreciate you working with other citizens in the county.”
At their meeting, the county commission also addressed the results of the performance audit of the prior commission by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General.
County Administrator Mack McDonald shared when he first came to work for the county, they soon recognized that resolutions and ordinances being presented by county commissioners had been drafted by outside entities. The county attorney and his office shared concerns with the actions to the Utah Attorney General, Lt. Governor, and others state entities.
McDonald shared frustration with the audit report, which instructed the county to have more stringent ordinances regarding open and public meetings act and disclosure of conflict of interest than the state statute.
McDonald said, “At no point in time during those years that we’ve been screaming at the rooftop did anyone ever state. ‘Hey county, pass a better ordinance and this will stop’. Because I really don’t think it would.”
In the county’s written response to the audit, county staff and commissioners say they will pass the recommended ordinances, but also ask that the state take their statutes further.
Speaking at the meeting, members of the commission offered their support of the audit findings. Commissioner Harvey shared his commitment to citizens of the county.
“They deserve to have an efficient government that is strong and trustworthy,” said Harvey. “Moving forward, we have our marching orders to make some important changes and I know we’re in agreement that we’re committed to make those changes.”
McDonald shared that the report was referred to two interim state legislative committees for further investigation.
At the meeting, members of the commission also approved receipt of a grant to construct a debris basin in the Spanish Valley area.
The project is in response to the 2021 Pack Creek Fire, with the project approved by the Utah Division of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for $584,082 ,with a local share of $194,694. The county commits to the local share either financially or through in-kind labor.
Members of the Pack Creek community offered support of the grant during public comment, including President of the Pack Creek Water Company Jeff Mattson.
Mattson asked the commission to support the grant following the destruction of the fire and flooding in the burn scar since.
“These floods have destroyed community infrastructure,” said Matteson. “They wiped out one of our 6-inch main culinary water lines across the creek and also destroyed the cement creek crossing that people that live on the north side of the creek use to access town.”
The commission unanimously approved the grant, and also approved use of $20,500 from the state to fund flood mitigation. The funds will be used for a county sandbagging machine, as well as a drone for emergency management to use when assessing damage.
At the meeting, members of the commission passed a resolution asking the state of Utah to recognize Navajo Nation Road N35 as a transportation priority and designate the road as a Utah highway.
N35 is a paved road connecting the communities of Montezuma Creek and Red Mesa. Local tribal leadership, including the Navajo Utah Commission, also passed resolutions asking that the state take over maintenance of the road.
Members of the commission also approved $30,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Economic Mobility and Opportunity Program. The county is one of ten recipients of the award. The goal of the project is to diversify government jobs in San Juan County with an eye on establishing a path for Native Americans to understand existing employment opportunities in the government sector and identify barriers to address for Indigenous populations to diversify local government employment.