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The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area, and the reporting focuses on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

Utah’s Legislature is OK with Bears Ears land swap

Bears Ears National Monument, Indian Creek, Aug. 9, 2016
Bob Wick
Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah protects one of most significant cultural landscapes in the United States, with thousands of archaeological sites and important areas of spiritual significance.

The Utah Legislature has approved a large land swap within Bears Ears National Monument paving the way for a deal with the federal government for higher-revenue generating land in other counties.

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration is mandated to develop its land for economic use, but parcels within the monument aren’t generating much revenue. The exchange is for around 161,000 acres of SITLA land for 164,000 acres of federal land in 21 counties around Utah. Most of the state land being swapped is within the monument but includes other sensitive areas like the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Michelle McConkie, the director of SITLA, told KUER that the land they want to exchange could be developed for mining, energy and real estate.

“This has the potential to be incredibly valuable for beneficiaries to bring some really significant funding to public schools,” she said. “It also has the potential to help some of these local rural communities with economic development that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

This is the sixth large land exchange by the state agency. One in 1998 included more than 176,00 acres in nearby Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. McConkie said it “netted about $750 million for the public school system.”

The state and the federal government have competing management goals for the monument, according to John Ruple, a law professor at the University of Utah. He said this deal will help clear things up.

“[SITLA] wins by consolidating land into blocks that are easier to manage and that have a higher development potential,” he said. “While the BLM wins by eliminating the potential for future management conflicts.”

Right now the value of the land exchange isn’t fully known, Ruple said, it’s not just acre for acre – especially the land in the monument, which generates only about $80,000 a year for the state.

He said more work needs to be done to understand the full scope.

“What they would like to trade into has a lot of economic value. The question is whether that is a good deal for the federal government and for the American taxpayer … you could have identical acreage with having a huge disparity in value.”

State leaders are also pursuing a lawsuit against the Biden administration for restoring the size of the monument after former President Donald Trump downsized the original designation by 85%. This land exchange doesn’t have an impact on state leaders’ pursuit, McConkie said.

It would, however, add more federal land in San Juan County, which some lawmakers are opposed to.

“I think most of us would agree that we’d rather not even be in this position,” said House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper. “Unfortunately, the federal government has put us in this position, I think especially for SITLA, San Juan County and the state as a whole, it’s a no-win situation.”

Gov. Spencer Cox and Interior Sec. Deb Haaland still need to sign a memorandum of understanding before the deal moves on to Congress. As part of the Legislature’s approval, lawmakers stipulated the federal government needs to sign off on the deal within a year.

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