Why Utah is trading 161,000 acres of Bears Ears with the federal government

The House on Fire ruins are pictured in the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah’s San Juan County on April 9, 2021. State lawmakers approved a massive land swap Tuesday that would transfer 161,000 acres currently managed by the Utah School and Institutional Lands Trust Administration, or SITLA, to the federal government.

The House on Fire ruins are pictured in the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah’s San Juan County on April 9, 2021. State lawmakers approved a massive land swap Tuesday that would transfer 161,000 acres currently managed by the Utah School and Institutional Lands Trust Administration, or SITLA, to the federal government. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers approved a massive land swap Tuesday that would transfer 161,000 acres currently managed by the Utah School and Institutional Lands Trust Administration, or SITLA, to the federal government.

In exchange for the land, which is spread throughout Bears Ears National Monument, the federal government will hand over roughly 164,000 acres to the state.

SITLA, which manages some state land to raise funds for Utah public schools, had some holdings in what eventually became Bears Ears in 2016. That designation kneecapped the revenue generated from the state-owned land in the area, says Michelle McConkie, executive director of SITLA.

The swap approved Tuesday, she said, "would allow SITLA to trade out of scattered lands that are surrounded by federal lands that are restrictively managed, and ... therefore bring in very limited revenue for the trust."

Included in the roughly 164,000 acres the state will acquire under the swap are "targeted parcels with greater revenue-producing potential," McConkie told lawmakers during a Legislative Management Interim Committee meeting.

In addition to the land within the Bears Ears boundary, SITLA also disposed of parcels in the Bonneville Salt Flats, handing it over to the federal government. McConkie said the land was "very difficult for us to make money off of."

It ultimately passed with unanimous support from lawmakers and will expire in one year unless the U.S. House and Senate pass a law, signed by the president, that finalizes the transfer.

What will the land be used for?

McConkie on Tuesday called the swap a win for Utah's public schools and rural communities, who could cash in on new opportunities in the tourism, recreation, housing and extractive industries.

"We worked with local community members and leaders to try to find out from those closest to the land what they needed and what economic development they thought would help their communities and would help bring money to the trust," she said, noting that the 164,000 acres acquired will be spread out across 21 counties.

Much of the land will be slated for mineral extraction. Chris Fausett, an assistant director with SITLA, said the administration's plans for the land are "diverse" and include oil, gas, potash, helium, lithium, gold and other metal extraction. He also said the land will be used for renewable energy, specifically solar.

Bears Ears is within San Juan County, which will be losing the most SITLA land from the swap, and gaining the most federal land. Over 49,000 acres in the county will be transferred, including parts of the Lisbon and Spanish valleys "that present significantly greater economic development potential than SITLA's current land holdings in the area," McConkie said.

Tension between Utah and Washington, D.C.

House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, on Tuesday summed up a sentiment held by many Utah lawmakers.

"Most of us would agree that we would rather not even be in this position. Unfortunately the federal government put us in a position. I think especially for SITLA, San Juan County and the state as a whole, that's a no-win situation. There's a lot of issues that need to be addressed moving forward," he said.

Originally designated by President Barack Obama in the waning days of his presidency, former President Donald Trump drastically shrunk both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments. The move was applauded by some Utah lawmakers, who called the monuments federal overreach, and criticized by environmental groups that warned the reduction would erode protections for the number of culturally significant sites within its boundaries. President Joe Biden then restored both monuments.

One of the groups that condemned Trump's move, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Tuesday's vote was a step in the right direction, but some concerns remain.

"This land swap is clearly going to result in better management for sacred and cultural sites within the monument. However, the devil will be in the details; we are concerned about some of the lands that School Trust Lands proposes to acquire in the exchange," the group wrote on Twitter.

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Bears Ears National MonumentOutdoors & RecUtah
Kyle Dunphey
Kyle Dunphey is a reporter on the Utah InDepth team, covering a mix of topics including politics, the environment and breaking news. A Vermont native, he studied communications at the University of Utah and graduated in 2020. Whether on his skis or his bike, you can find Kyle year-round exploring Utah’s mountains.

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