It took only two strokes of the pen to melt six decades of frustration that festered as the state fought with the federal government over land issues.
Maybe not all of the frustration disappeared, but enough of it that politicos on both the state and federal levels were relishing a new era of state-federal cooperation they were hoping could resolve even greater land disputes, maybe even wilderness.On Friday, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt signed a historic agreement that may resolve the contentious issue of hundreds of thousands of acres of state school trust lands now locked up inside national parks, national forests and Indian reservations.
The deal had the entire Utah congressional delegation handing out congratulations. Schoolchildren were singing. And, as strange as it sounded, Utah Republicans were cheering President Clinton for keeping a promise to trade out school trust lands within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which he created in 1996.
"A year ago, I stood with Utahns gathered in Washington to urge President Clinton to honor the promise he made to Utah schoolchildren. Today that promise has been kept," gushed Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah.
Leavitt, who with Babbitt forged the deal, called the land and mineral swap the largest single exchange of public land in the history of the continental United States, calling it a "win-win-win."
"It's a win for the schoolchildren of the state because their schools will become better," he said. "It's a win for those who occupy the counties in the affected areas because there will be employment that might not otherwise have been there. And it's a win for the environment of our state because 376,000 acres will be preserved perpetually for the benefit of future generations."
At the center of the deal are what are commonly known as "inholdings." At the time of statehood, the federal government gave the state scattered parcels of land all over the state that were to be held in trust specifically for the support of public schools. (In exchange, the state gave up any right to tax federal lands.)
Over time, however, many of these isolated parcels were surrounded by national parks, forests and Indian reservations, making any state development of the parcels politically infeasible. The first inholdings occurred in the 1930s when Congress created national forests in Utah, and the issue has persisted unabated as more and more national parks, recreation areas and wilderness areas were created.
The state failed in its attempts to get the federal government to buy the parcels, and attempts by Utah politicians to trade the lands for other federal parcels met with repeated failure.
That was until Leavitt and Babbitt ordered state and federal negotiators back to the bargaining table with explicit instructions the problem would be solved. With litigation looming over inholdings in the newly created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the negotiators were told failure to reach a deal was not an option.
Among those paying tribute to the deal was Norma Matheson, whose husband, former Gov. Scott Matheson, initiated Project Bold in the 1970s to facilitate a huge land exchange with the federal government. Much of what was envisioned in Project Bold is encompassed within the deal signed Friday.
In fact, some of the language in the deal was lifted word-for-word from the Project Bold proposal.
Under terms of the agreement, which must still be passed by Congress, the state agreed to give up 376,739 acres of state school trust lands, including:
- 176,699 acres within the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
- 80,000 acres within Arches and Capitol Reef national parks, Glen Canyon and Flaming Gorge national recreation areas, and Dinosaur National Monument.
- 47,480 acres within the Goshute and Navajo Indian reservations.
- 70,000 acres within eight national forests and the Desert Range Experimental Station.
- 2,560 acres in the Alton coal fields in Kane County that had previously been designated unsuitable for mining.
The state also agreed to give up mineral rights on an additional 65,852 acres of state land. The Office of School and Institutional Trust Lands also agreed to drop its lawsuits over the Grand Staircase inholdings and lost coal developments there.
In return, the school trust fund will receive from the federal government a mixture of developable lands, mineral rights and cash, including:
- $50 million in cash.
- $13 million to be generated from the sale of as-yet-unleased coal in the Cottonwood Tract in Emery County.
- Mineral rights to more than 160 million tons of coal in Carbon and Emery counties.
- Rights to 185 billion cubic feet of coal bed methane in Carbon and Emery counties in what is known as the Ferron Field.
- 2,000 acres of limestone deposits in Millard County.
- 4,000 acres of oil and gas properties in Duchesne County.
- 2,600 acres of tar sands in Uintah County.
- The Blue Mountain Telecommunications Site in Uintah County.
- The 3,000 acres on which Beaver Mountain Ski Resort sits, as well as adjacent lands that could be developed into condominiums.
- More than 47,000 acres of developable land in Washington, Kane and Garfield counties.
Members of Utah's congressional delegation were unanimous in their support of the deal, as were members of Utah's environmental community who also attended the signing ceremony at the Governor's Mansion. And all were encouraged that resolution of this complex problem could portend resolution for other issues.
For too long, the inholdings issue has "kept our school trust lands hostage to politics and bureaucracy," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah.
And maybe, just maybe, this agreement "is not the end of negotiations but the beginning of several other deals that will move other issues in Utah," Cannon said. "It will serve as a guide to the resolution of many other issues before us in the area of public lands."
Scott Bean, state superintendent of public instruction, says the settlement appears to be attractive.
"If it's as good as it looks at first glance, it really will be a positive settlement," Bean said Friday at a State Board of Education meeting. "We don't see any down sides to it."
Federal land given to state of Utah
1. Warner Valley
4. Mill Fork (minerals only)
5. Cottonwood (minerals only)
6. North Horm (minerals only)
7. Dugout Canyon (minerals only)
8. Westridge Coal (minerals only)
9. Ferron Field (minerals only)
11. Duchesne County
12. Uintah County (Blue Mtn) 13. Uintan County
14. Big Water
15. Beaver Mtn. Ski Resort
State received: 139,000 acres
State gives up 376,000 acres
Cash payment $50,000,000
Other minerals to be developes:
Limestone, tar sands, oil gas