Counties hammer out conservation plans

Officials hope making local conservation plans will keep trust lands usable

Published: Friday, July 9 2010 10:30 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — It may have happened 14 years ago, but the fury over President Bill Clinton's surprise creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument remains with state and local officials who still mourn the "loss" of nearly 1.9 million acres.

For that reason, many area county officials have looked at cobbling together their own land conservation plans that set aside wilderness, reasoning that if they do it first, the federal government will have no reason to swoop in with an arbitrary designation.

As a model, many have looked to the Washington County lands bill that passed last year. Pushed by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, the measure established two national conservation areas to protect the endangered desert tortoise and other vulnerable species and carved out 256,338 acres of wilderness areas in Washington County.

"In the aftermath of that bill, a number of counties have been looking at a similar process to try to resolve the wilderness debate on a negotiated basis," said John Andrews, associate director of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).

Such monument designations not only set industries such as mining, gas exploration and cattle ranching on their heels, but also trap SITLA lands, which are supposed to be developed to produce revenue for Utah's public schools and some of its state-owned universities.

The trust lands have been historically problematic because of the way they were created at statehood. Four sections of each 36-section township were designated trust lands, freckling the state with tracts that weren't conducive to development. Consolidating some of those lands through sales and trades has been one of the SITLA objectives for some time.

Andrews said SITLA had 176,000 acres captured in the Grand Staircase monument designation and another 300,000 acres that were off limits for development because they were in national parks or monuments or Native American Indian reservations. In a process often marred by stalled negotiations and setbacks, Andrews said the trust lands administration by 1999 was able to "trade out" those lands and also get a $58 million revenue boost.

When a U.S. Department of Interior memo was "leaked" earlier this year about the possible creation of more than a dozen new national monuments — including two in Utah — the howls of outrage began again.

"A monument designation is kind like an atomic bomb and the concern was why the president would do that if there are local efforts to come up with a consensus," Andrews said.

Those local planning efforts are far more palatable than what some state and local officials say is the far-reaching net cast by the Red Rock Wilderness Act, pushed for more than 20 years with the support of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club.

Sponsored by a New York Democrat, the bill would designate 9.4 million acres of Bureau of Land Management parcels — or one sixth of all the land in Utah — as wilderness. Such a designation would prevent commercial development, ban motorized vehicles and prohibit road building or oil and gas development.

"When new wilderness is created, it creates major problems for us because we can't get access to our lands and there isn't any possibility of economic development," Andrews said. "If you look at the Red Rock bill, that would capture over a million acres of school trust lands. Our total holdings are 3.5 million acres. If we lose almost a third of our portfolio, it is going to have an impact."

SITLA's investment fund for the first time reached the $1 billion threshold in December, and each year it distributes between $20 million and $30 million, mostly in interest earnings, to Utah schools.

For that reason, SITLA has been on the ground in Piute, San Juan, Emery and Beaver counties as potential land conservation plans are being discussed.

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