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Tribal coalition, environmentalists back Bears Ears land swap between Utah, feds

Posted at 8:06 AM, Jun 22, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — A commission made up of Native American tribal leaders will support a massive land exchange inside Bears Ears National Monument.

So do environmental groups.

In a letter to the Committee on Natural Resources, the Bears Ears Commission announced they would be backing Congressman John Curtis' bill that proposes a land swap because "it will result in greater protections for the significant cultural landscape of the Monument."

FOX 13 News first reported on Tuesday about the bill and the land exchange. Roughly 162,000 acres of land the state of Utah controls inside Bears Ears National Monument will be exchanged for federal government-owned lands scattered across the state. The deal is potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the long-term, as Utah's School Institutional Trust Lands Administration can use the land for things like energy, mineral or other development and the money goes into the public education system.

In exchange, the federal government gets more land inside Bears Ears National Monument, which has seen its boundaries created, reduced and then restored under the past three U.S. presidential administrations.

The support of tribal leaders with ties to Bears Ears National Monument is a significant boost for the legislation. In the past, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has expressed support for the "concept," but cautioned that the details of the legislation were critical.

On Thursday, SUWA said it now supported the land exchange.

"SUWA supports President Biden’s goal of exchanging Utah trust lands out of Bears Ears National Monument, which would allow agencies to manage the monument as a single, unified landscape. On the ground, this should mean that the monument’s irreplaceable cultural and historic resources, fossils, and unique flora and fauna are better cared for and preserved for current and future generations. H.R. 3049 would accomplish many of these important goals and we support that outcome," the group's legal director, Steve Bloch, said in a statement.

SUWA joined the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups in sending a seperate letter to Congress supporting it.

Republican and Democratic leadership in the Utah State Legislature met last week and unanimously approved the trade. HR3049 will get a hearing on Thursday in Washington, D.C. A companion bill is being run in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Mike Lee. Both bills have the support of Utah's entire congressional delegation.

But Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, who represents the area in the Utah State Legislature, criticized legislative leadership and blasted the deal as harmful to San Juan County. He accused SITLA of doing the bidding of environmental groups like SUWA and threatened litigation over it.

"The truth is that this SITLA Land swap is of, by, and for the environmentalists. It is done while Bears Ears National Monument is still being litigated, both for what president Trump did and for what Obama and Biden did. The fact that Utah's legislative executive committee 'approved' the swap means nothing, other than that the legislative management committee is as gullible as the directors of SITLA," he wrote in a statement to FOX 13 News. "Government was supposed to prevent plunder not be the main instrument of carrying it out. I plan to file [lawsuits] to stop this unconstitutional transfer of land to the federal government. And, it is painfully apparent that the legislature has failed in their attempt to transfer their fiduciary responsibilities to the unelected bureaucrats at SITLA."

"The one request I had after meeting with jointly with SITLA, the Governor, Senator Lee, and Congressman Curtis was that they at least acknowledge that San Juan County was losing in this deal and that they, SITLA and the delegation, would do what they could to help make San Juan County whole. Instead, they are all praising the deal and saying it is 'good for the area.'"

Rep. Curtis told FOX 13 News earlier this week he hoped to win bipartisan support for the deal in Congress. The land swap will not end the litigation over Bears Ears National Monument. Utah's Attorney General recently filed a lawsuit against the federal government challenging the president's authority under the Antiquities Act concerning the designation of monuments.

Read the letter from the Bears Ears Commission here: