When President Joe Biden restored the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument last fall, he created a problem — and an opportunity — for the state of Utah.
More specifically, he created a problem and an opportunity for the State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, an entity that raises funds for public education from its 3.4 million acres of patchwork landholdings, which include hundreds of thousands of acres within the new monument.
When Biden restored Bears Ears, he encircled those acres with monument lands that will likely be managed more stringently than they were under the Bureau of Land Management. The monument’s creation also provided SITLA with leverage, as its encircled acres are now desirable to create a more cohesive monument.
Now, SITLA is trying to trade many of those acres to the federal government in exchange for other BLM parcels in 19 counties across the state. Though the details aren’t final, SITLA is seeking about 27,000 acres in Grand County — just under 19% of the total proposed acquisition, and more acres than in any other county.
Owning about 6% of land in Utah, SITLA’s mission is to “administer trust lands prudently and profitably” to benefit the state’s schools and other public institutions, like justice services and hospitals.
One way SITLA has achieved this is by swapping lands with the federal government. For example, when the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument was created in the 1990s, SITLA achieved a similar land swap, exchanging hundreds of thousands of acres with the BLM that have generated a quarter of the trust’s current value.
Notably, acres relinquished in these swaps do not need to match acres acquired: the swaps need only achieve parity in overall value, so SITLA has often ended up with fewer, higher-value acres.
“It’s not an acre for acre approach, it’s an acre for better acres goal,” wrote Marla Kennedy, SITLA’s director of communications, in an email.
Currently, SITLA’s Bears Ears acreage accumulates under $80,000 per year in profits, according to State Rep. Timothy Hawkes, who this year sponsored a joint resolution to expedite the swap.
Under the swap, SITLA would trade to the BLM about 160,000 acres of land — about 75% of which is now encircled by the monument — in exchange for about 146,000 acres of BLM land across 19 Utah counties.
Besides 27,000 acres in Grand County, SITLA would acquire about 23,000 acres in Emery County, 19,000 acres in San Juan County and 8,000 acres in Carbon County.
“It’s a very favorable exchange,” said Hawkes at a House Education Committee hearing, “from lands that have modest value for the trust right now to lands that likely will have significant value to the trust over time.”
Though SITLA has released few details about the land swap, the Grand County Commission briefly discussed the proposal at its last meeting.
“As a county, we should decide, one, do we want to be engaged with this and try to influence it, and two, what do we like and dislike about a land exchange?” said Commissioner Kevin Walker, who presented a map of the proposed land exchange in Grand and San Juan counties.
The map shows SITLA acquiring large chunks of land by Green River and Labyrinth Canyon, areas Grand County has long targeted for wilderness designations, Walker said.
In the proposal, SITLA would also acquire several parcels near Highway 313 and Westwater Canyon. Finally, in the Moab Valley itself, SITLA would acquire a small parcel just west of the acreage housing the Lionsback Resort — a once highly-controversial development near Sand Flats Recreation Area — and several parcels just south of its large holdings in the San Juan County portion of Spanish Valley.
There, SITLA is currently planning a large residential-commercial development tentatively called the South Valley Community.
Several commissioners expressed concern over the proposed acquisitions and the potential impacts to development, recreation, wilderness designation, resource extraction and holistic land management.
“[SITLA] … is not looking at the BLM’s larger land management plan,” said Commissioner Sarah Stock. “So it’s in our favor to have the BLM managing this area … with a holistic vision, versus SITLA … piece by piece, trying to exploit it to the fullest extent.”
Walker said the swap is being discussed at high levels; the local BLM office has not yet been involved, and Grand County itself has not been consulted. As a trust, SITLA is not required to undergo the same public-input process as many public land management agencies.
According to Kennedy, while county commissioners aren’t typically consulted at the beginning of land swaps, SITLA will be “meeting with many of them soon.”
“SITLA endeavors to reach out to county commissioners in both formal and informal ways to get their input,” she said. “… They are certainly a part of the process we feel is important.”
During their discussion, commissioners reached consensus that Grand County should work to engage the BLM, possibly to encourage the agency to give SITLA money instead of additional lands.
Commission Vice Chair Mary McGann said she plans to discuss the swap at an upcoming meeting with a high-level BLM official that had originally been scheduled to discuss the just-scrapped Book Cliffs Highway.
Getting to the swap
Under state code, any SITLA land swap involving more than 500 acres must be approved by the state Legislature through a joint resolution. Congress must also approve the trade.
Hawkes had introduced the joint resolution, HJR016, this year, in the hopes of accelerating the land-swap process, which can get mired for years in complex appraisals.
“I can tell you with absolute certainty that this will create enormous value [and] enhance the value of state-controlled lands,” Hawkes said to the House. “…We control our destiny as far as this land swap is concerned.”
The joint resolution easily passed the state House, despite outcry from Rep. Phil Lyman, who argued the swap would deprive San Juan County of potential for economic development.
“If you take these sections out of a county like, say, Garfield County, and move them to a ‘more productive’ place … then in 20 years, you can also take the kids out of that county and move them to that more productive place to get jobs,” Lyman said.
Now-retired SITLA head Dave Ure had said that as part of the swap, the organization would add significant acreage in San Juan County, particularly around its towns, mills and mines.
“This is a gold mine for the school kids,” Ure said, “to be able to capture the economic values through the rest of the state and keep rural schools going.”
Despite passing the house, the resolution failed to pass in the Senate and lacked a hearing. Despite that blow, Kennedy said SITLA expects the Legislative Management Committee to pass the resolution during its next meeting on April 13, which would enable SITLA to create a memorandum of understanding to develop a deal with the BLM.