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Trust-Lands Administrators Won't Negotiate Bears Ears Swaps -- Yet

Judy Fahys
The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration sold land at Butler Wash just weeks before President Barack Obama declared the Bears Ears National Monument. It includes 109,000 acres of trust lands that SITLA's not ready to discuss with the feds.

Utah trust-lands administrators aren’t making any decisions yet on the new Bears Ears National Monument. They want to know more before they consider exchanging 109,000 acres inside the monument.

President Barack Obama raised the idea of swapping out school trust lands within monument boundaries in his proclamation two weeks ago. On Friday, members of the board that oversees that acreage had an emergency meeting to discuss how to respond.

“I’m just asking that you just not do anything to help the federal government,” said San Juan County School Board member Merri Shumway, who addressed the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration before it began a closed-door session.

“I ask you to work-- just to wait with -- on the elected officials in the state while they work to see what they can do to overturn this monument with the new Trump administration.”

SITLA’s mandate is to wring the most revenue possible from trust lands, and Utah schools have received $1.7 billion dollars from past deals. That includes exchanges on the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument that netted $50 million dollars in cash and hundreds of acres of energy-producing federal land.

But SITLA Director David Ure says the risks and benefits still aren’t clear at Bears Ears.

“We just have decided, until we gather more information, that we will do nothing right now, which is, in a sense a decision,” says Ure. “We’ll wait and see what happens in Congress and the new administration.”

The agency wants to know more before deciding whether negotiating with the federal government -- or joining the fight against it -- will serve schoolkids best.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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