Michael O. Leavitt: Strategic land exchanges benefit rural economies, Utah schoolchildren and the environment

Published: Sunday, Aug. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Looking west/northwest from the Sand Wash airstrip in far southwestern Uintah County. Under the BLM's preferred alternative, Gasco Energy, Inc. would be authorized to drill from along the tops of the Bad Land Cliffs in background and on the intermediate benches and along Wrinkle Road, a main access point to the Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River.

Ray Bloxham, SUWA

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This summer, amid lots of other discussion about Western land use policy, Utah School & Institutional Trust Lands (SITLA) is quietly marking the 14th anniversary of the National Parks/Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument Land Exchange, which was the biggest U.S. land transaction since the Louisiana Purchase. Utah just hit the $300 million mark in revenues the exchange has created for the Permanent School Fund and other state and local coffers.

The success of the National Parks/Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument Land Exchange reminds us that we can all agree on some land-use opportunities right in front of us.

A glimpse at the statewide ownership map of Utah, overlaid by proposed wilderness, quickly illuminates our public land-management challenges. Utah is one of three Western states granted four sections of land in every township by Congress at statehood, with revenues going to Utah schoolchildren.

It created a confusing checkerboard of federal and state land ownership, particularly in rural parts of the state. The mix of high-stakes opportunities for natural resource exploration and world-renowned scenic landscapes is unparalleled. No wonder Utah is ground zero in the entire West for state-federal management conflict.

But the 1998 land exchange cut through the clutter, creating rural economic development opportunities that ultimately benefit Utah schoolchildren.

Three years before the exchange, federal designation of a monument had captured thousands of acres of Utah state trust lands within the monument. Through negotiation with the federal government, Utah was able to trade the land-locked parcels for large blocks of resource-rich SITLA land outside the monument.

Today, some $300 million has been generated from coal and natural gas revenue on land acquired in the trade. Revenues go into the state's Permanent School Fund, and earnings from that endowment are distributed to every public school in Utah. An average Utah high school receives $75,000 every year in unrestricted revenues.

Several potential SITLA land exchanges could create economic development in rural Utah and benefit Utah schools. Targeted land exchanges enable Utah to acquire the land that will serve us best. The old saying goes that there are three things that matter in real estate: location, location and location.

Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Jim Matheson are advancing bills to return sacred land to the Ute Indian Tribe, with SITLA acquiring land with potential for oil and gas development. Gov. Gary Herbert supports it. The Wilderness Society supports it. This is common sense problem-solving where everyone wins.

Citizens and county leaders in Emery County have spent considerable time developing a land-trade proposal. SITLA has identified BLM land with economic potential near Price and Green River for potential exchange with SITLA land in Desolation Canyon and the San Rafael Swell that are scenic and suited for conservation.

BLM land in northern San Juan County has natural resource development potential. It could be traded for the scenic Comb Ridge area in southwestern San Juan County, Cedar Mesa and areas adjacent to Canyonlands National Park that are suited for conservation. San Juan County, the mineral industry and the conservation community all believe such an exchange has great promise. Gov. Herbert is showing leadership by advancing this and other trades with the Interior Department.

It's popular to talk about protecting the environment and building the economy as opposites, but it's just not true. Westerners know that if we take good care of the land it takes good care of us. Strategic land exchanges in Emery, San Juan and other rural counties benefit rural economies, Utah schoolchildren and the environment. We should focus on this common ground and make more SITLA land exchanges happen.

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