The creation of the Bears Ears National Monument likely will start years of contentious haggling and land swaps while the U.S. government tries to consolidate the monument’s boundaries and Utah tries to protect revenue gained from its trust lands.
The federal government has its sights on 109,106 acres of Utah trust lands that are sprinkled within boundaries of the monument. It wants to trade those state parcels – about 140 of them – for Bureau of Land Management lands that are outside the monument boundary.
President Barack Obama designated 1.35 million acres as the monument on Dec. 28. According to his proclamation, the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior will explore a formal agreement with Utah on terms of a possible land exchange, and report on its potential to Obama by Jan. 19.
The state trust lands within the monument are managed by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). Since 1994, SITLA has generated $1.7 billion in revenue from the trust lands, helping to grow Utah’s permanent school fund to more than $2.1 billion. Interest and dividends from the fund have provided $320 million to Utah schools.
SITLA information officer Deena Loyola said the office is researching the land-exchange proposal.
“We’re working with the BLM to identify lands we could trade, and look forward to a good resolution that protects the education endowment,” she said.
A similar land exchange took place when President Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. The deal included a $50 million payment to the Permanent School Fund and a significant land exchange.
“That one took two years to complete, so they take time,” Loyola said.
Federal land exchanges go through environmental reviews and typically require approval from Congress. The Utah Legislature must also approve the deal.
Trust lands are sometimes auctioned off to private buyers to generate revenues. For example, trust land on Comb Ridge near Bluff, Utah, was recently auctioned to a private buyer. But Loyola said that for now, no trust land auctions are planned within the monument.
The creation of the monument was a blow for state Republican leaders and rural residents who feared it would bring federal control and restricted development. It was a victory for Native American tribes and conservationists, who wanted to protect the land and its estimated 100,000 archaeological sites.
Now, a week after the monument designation, the focus has shifted to land swaps.
“It is something we will watch closely,” said Josh Ewing, of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a conservation group that lobbied for the monument. “The concern is that BLM land near towns like Bluff could be replaced with state trust land that’s turned into a controversial oil field because there are fewer regulations. That could impact our water wells.”
One possibility is to trade monument trust land for BLM energy zones in the Uintah Basin, which could be profitable for SITLA because of revenues from royalties and leases.
But trading trust lands outside the county is also politically controversial.
The monument is within San Juan County and was adamantly opposed by county commissioners. The prospect of losing trust land adds to the problem.
“We are a poor county and don’t want those trust lands leaving because we rely on the funds to support our schools,” said San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams. “We’re tired of federal intervention in our county, and this is yet another example.”
One year ago, the Utah State Board of Education passed a resolution on federal and school trust land policy, clarifying the need to adequately compensate Utah’s public schools in the event of a national monument designation.
SITLA director David Ure stated: “We are disappointed that this designation happened through unilateral action by the president, rather than through negotiation and compromise, but SITLA will work in good faith to determine if an exchange agreement with the Department of the Interior is possible and in the best interests of the school trust beneficiaries.”
Funding for Utah’s public education system from all sources is estimated at a total of $6.2 billion in fiscal 2018. State funds provide about 54 percent of the total. Utah remains last in the nation in per-pupil spending, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.