A festering confrontation between the state and national government over 80,000 acres of state land locked within national parks is apparently close to resolution.
Mike Christensen, deputy director of the State Office of Planning and Budget, told members of the state wilderness task force Thursday that the regional director of the National Park Service met with Gov. Norm Bangerter Aug. 21 and said Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan is pushing for a settlement.Regional director Lorraine Mintzmyer said she had just met with Lujan in Washington, D.C., and Lujan gave her instructions to work as cooperatively and expeditiously as possible on land exchanges to get the state out of national park areas.
The Bureau of Land Management will be facilitating the trades by turning over BLM land to the state.
BLM state director James Parker estimated that the exchange will take "a year or more" depending on the number of appeals or protests filed.
Last year, the issue of the state's inability to use its land in national parks reached the flash point. The state land board proposed selling or leasing land for private development within national parks, a proposal that was met by stiff opposition in public hearings.
After the meeting with Mintzmyer, Christensen said, the state has been drawing up lists of BLM land that it would like to acquire in the trades. Nearly all the land within national parks is both surface and mineral rights, except 12,000 acres of state property which are mineral estate only.
"We are very close to completing that (list)," Christensen said. He said Dick Mitchell, director of the Division of State Lands and Forestry, has been helping to assess a series of parcels that the staff has identified.
"That's not finalized yet, but it's very close," Christensen said. When it is final, the state will give a presentation about it to the BLM and National Park Service.
Parker has indicated his willingness to work on the trades, he said.
Christensen said these difficult questions remain:
- The problem of payment to counties of in-lieu taxes to make up for state inholdings. Most likely the trades cannot be restricted to the counties where the state land presently is.
"We have to be very careful that doesn't become a serious problem," Christensen said.
In the 1988-89 fiscal year, the state payments were 6 cents an acre for its various properties, amounting to $200,000; that should peak at 52 cents an acre in 1992, about $2 million.
"So it's not a huge amount . . . but it clearly could have some impact on counties," he said.
- Environmental issues. Conservationists would not approve of the state trading out of national parks only to pick up land in wilderness study areas, he said.
- The issue of how much the land is worth. "That's one that is going to be a sticky one," he said. However, Christensen said Parker told him he's willing to look at anything the state suggests.
The state will trade for land of equal value, but it may not be equal acreage. Utah may end up getting less acres of land that has a higher value in terms of mineral potential.
Christensen characterized the relationship between the state and national government as good.
Before the exchanges can take place, the BLM must at least write an environmental assessment, and if some of the parcels are controversial, a full-blown environmental impact statement may be required. So the program may take more than a few months to complete.
He said that when Bangerter returns from abroad next week, "We'll sit down and show him where we are" in the exchange.
The report was given to the wilderness task force because the same process can facilitate exchanges out of wilderness areas, military reserves or Indian reservations.
Mitchell said he and Parker have worked together and have compiled a list of exchange parcels that both find acceptable.
"We've got to be realistic about it and not ask for the moon and not ask for more than we'd be entitled to in this case," Mitchell said.
He and Parker both told the committee the next stage probably will be to exchange state land in military reserves and Indian reservations, although with some land in Indian reservations, the state hesitates in trading because of high mineral values.
Parker said some exchanges may take five years but that the writing is on the wall. As far as exchanges even within holdings on Indian reservations and military bases, "We know that that's got to happen."
He said the BLM has not been appropriated money to evaluate exchanges but that could be accommodated by other methods such as payment by the Park Service. So far, the BLM has not received direct orders from the Interior Department to facilitate the trades, but Parker is working toward the exchanges anyway.