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SITLA has plans for Bears Ears land exchange, but Grand County has some reservations

Bears Ears National Monument, Bears Ears Buttes & Land, Aug. 13, 2016
Bob Wick
BLM Utah, public domain
Bears Ears National Monument is located in southeastern Utah, Aug. 13, 2016. The size of the monument has been a source of debate between two presidential administrations, Utah state leaders, conservationists and tribal leaders.

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration is working on a deal to swap areas it owns within Bears Ears National Monument with land in 21 counties across the state.

SITLA has 130,000 acres in the monument and hopes to trade those parcels for land that could bring them greater economic development. Early plans have about 10% of the exchange happening in Grand County, according to a presentation from SITLA officials to the county commission last week.

Michelle McConkie, director of the agency, said federal restrictions make it difficult to make money on their property in the monument.

“We're looking for the pieces of land that have resources that we can use to maximize money for the school children and our other beneficiaries,” she said at the May 3 meeting.

This isn’t the first large-scale land exchange SITLA has undertaken, something similar happened in relation to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1998. That exchange brought in more than $330 million between 1999 to 2016.

But some Grand County commissioners aren’t fully on board with current plans. They expressed concern about a few of the parcels SITLA had in mind, and how that would impact the county’s sites and recreation.

The commission is also working on a public lands bill of its own that would make parts of the county National Conservation Areas. Commissioner Kevin Walker said it would be difficult to do the swap without trading into the potentially protected land.

“One might say that every county ought to have some SITLA land,” he said. “It's a shared opportunity or burden how everyone wants to view it. But currently … a higher percentage of Grand County is owned by SITLA than any other county in the state.”

Any deal would still need the approval of the state Legislature. A resolution, introduced in the general session earlier this year, HJR 16, would approve the move. The bill passed the House but did not make it out of a Senate committee.

SITLA officials told Grand County leaders that because of the “magnitude” of this trade, it would also need an act of Congress to be completed.

At the same time, state leaders have been vocal in their dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden’s restoration of Bears Ears National Monument, reversing the previous administration’s move to shrink it. The Utah Attorney General’s Office has plans to sue.

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