After years of complaining, bargaining, lawsuits and more complaining, Utah will finally trade thousands of acres of state trust lands within national parks, monuments and forests for developable federal lands that could bring upward of $200 million to Utah schoolchildren.
Gov. Mike Leavitt announced Wednesday that he and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will sign a "historic" land-swap agreement Friday afternoon in Salt Lake City.The deal would swap 376,000 acres of school trust lands inside national parks, forests and monuments for acreage outside the federally protected areas. About 176,000 of the acres included in the deal are inside the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; another 200,000 are elsewhere in the state.
The trust lands administration will reportedly receive in trade parcels of Bureau of Land Management lands near Hatch in Garfield County; BLM land near Big Water in Kane County and coal tracts in Emery and Carbon counties, said to be particularly valuable for potential methane gas production. Coal tracts in the Wasatch Plateau are apparently included in the swap as well.
When Utah became a state in 1896, thousands of square miles of "federal" lands were given to the state land trust, the proceeds of which must go to public education. Unfortunately, little income can come from a square mile of trust land deep inside a national forest or park.
For years, Utah officials have been trying to trade those inholdings for federal lands elsewhere that could be developed, mined or drilled by the trust land administration.
This week's deal could also mean an end to the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration lawsuit seeking to negate the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
That suit, filed last June, charged President Clinton's establishment of the 1.7 million-acre monument in September 1996 illegally diminished the value of the 176,000 acres of school trust lands inside the monument's boundaries.
Last July the state filed a separate federal lawsuit asking a judge to resolve valuation disputes over about 240,000 acres of federal land around the state ordered traded for state inholdings by a 1993 act of Congress.
"People didn't see a solution on the horizon, and it was a high-stakes problem for us. (We were) spending a lot of money negotiating," said Leavitt spokeswoman Vicki Varela. "For us to have a resolution at all is amazing and, second, it's a resolution that everyone seems to be pleased with."
Sources in and out of government said the agreement is all but accomplished, and only last-minute hitches and personalities could stop it. But federal and state officials fully expect the deal to be signed and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, to introduce the bill that formalizes the exchange. Congress must approve the swap, and special interest groups may try to stop it, one federal official warned.
State officials said the deal will be "great news for Carbon and Emery counties" and federal officials said that private firms with oil and gas and mineral leases on the federal lands to be switched may oppose the deal, not wanting a new landlord.
The combination of that information leads to the
belief that current federal lands that contain coal and oil in those counties will be traded for state trust lands landlocked in national parks, monuments and forests throughout Utah.
"My colleagues who have worked on this feel like it's a really fair value for both sides. We appreciate the work the governor has done bringing this to this point. He's made this work," said David Hebertson, spokesman for the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
Doug Bates, director of law and legislation for the Utah State Office of Education, said pressure has been mounting on the federal government to address trust land issues in the form of federal legislation and lawsuits.
"There's been a fear on the part of environmentalists that trust lands would be developed regardless where they are. That situation in the (Grand Staircase-Escalante National) Monument with Conoco Oil drilling there put a little reality in the mix," he said.
Although public schools would ultimately benefit from the plan, Bates said, the state office of education was not involved in the land swap talks.
The negotiations to trade the land have been basically stalled for five years, ever since a bill sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, both R-Utah, passed into law that ordered the land trades to be made.
As late as March 25 of this year, Hansen told the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, which he chairs, that Bureau of Land Management officials continued to insist that Utah's trust-land inholdings were economically valueless and so couldn't be traded for federal BLM lands that could be developed and had economic value.
The impasse had gotten so bad that Utah last July filed suit demanding that federal officials place reasonable values on the state's inholdings.
But, federal sources told the Deseret News Wednesday, BLM officials who had been stonewalling the deal were replaced this spring. "This all came together within the last three weeks," Varela said. "It has moved very quickly, surprisingly so."
The renewed negotiations come at around the time that Utahn Pat Shea, who ran for governor as a Democrat in 1992 against Leavitt, was appointed BLM director.
Several major battles over school trust lands have been ongoing without final resolution for years. They include:
- Not completing a massive land trade ordered by Congress in 1993.
It provided a list of federal coal leases and assets it ordered offered for trust lands surrounded by national parks and forests. But federal and state officials have never agreed on the value of trust lands involved, so the process stalled. State lands officials have sued to prod it forward.
- A trade promised by Clinton for trust lands surrounded by the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. While Clinton promised it, no firm proposals have yet been made on exactly how to accomplish that.
- Continuing fights over how to handle trust lands within areas proposed for wilderness protection. That has often been one of many sticking points in wilderness bills.
Environmental groups said Thursday that they like the idea of a land swap but would wait to see the details before making final decisions.