SALT LAKE CITY — It took only a few minutes for legislative leaders to unanimously approve a massive land swap involving the controversial Bears Ears National Monument.
Utah's School Institutional Trust Lands Administration will give up 161,000 acres of land it holds inside the monument's boundaries. In exchange, the federal government will give SITLA 164,000 acres of land scattered across the state.
"We’re trading out of this land with the federal government and in return getting some targeted parcels that will allow us to make money," said Michelle McConkie, SITLA's executive director. "That’s our mandate to make money for the school kids for the state of Utah."
At a hearing Tuesday before the powerful Legislative Management Committee, made up of Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, lawmakers approved the deal. It allows the state to take the swapped federal lands and develop it.
"What type of mineral extraction you’re talking about in the areas that you outlined?" asked Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City.
"We've got everything from oil and gas potential to potash, helium, renewable energy, solar, lithium, some mining targets as well, gold, minerals," said Chris Faucett, the deputy director of SITLA.
McConkie told FOX 13 News following the hearing that it is a good deal for the state. The land SITLA holds inside Bears Ears National Monument wasn't able to generate much money given the monument's designation and restrictions.
"SITLA is currently making about $80,000 a year and that’s off grazing revenue. And that really, given the situation, our land position is the best use of that land currently. It would be very difficult to do much else now," she said. "We anticipate we will make tens of millions of dollars in the short term and hundreds of millions of dollars in the long term."
Such an exchange happened when President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. SITLA swapped out some lands within the federal monument boundaries. McConkie said that has generated over $750 million for education.
The deal had supporters. The Utah Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said the exchange benefits education funding in the state. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance told FOX 13 News it actually supports the land exchange, but the environmental group does have some reservations about 17,000 acres of wilderness land identified in the deal it would like to see dropped from acquisition.
"It's clearly going to result in better management for the sacred and cultural sites within the monument. However, the devil will be in the details and we are concerned about some of the lands that School Trust Lands proposes to acquire in the exchange," said Steve Bloch, SUWA's legal director. "We’re adamant SITLA has to do better in what’s acquired and what’s developed."
Not everyone is happy with it. San Juan County will lose more state trust lands and lawmakers from southeastern Utah have complained about the impact of the deal. House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, told SITLA officials his concerns even as he voted for the exchange.
"Continue to be involved with the county, work with San Juan County specifically to address as many of their concerns as possible," he said. "Again, none of us want to be in this situation."
McConkie acknowledged the county is in a rough spot.
"It has very little private land and a lot of federal land, and this would leave them with greater numbers of federal land," she said, but added that there is a greater potential of economic development with this new deal.
The agreement is independent of any lawsuit the state of Utah might file over the designation of Bears Ears National Monument. It was created by President Obama in 2016. Its boundaries were shrunk dramatically by President Trump in 2018. In 2021, President Biden restored the original boundaries. The Utah Attorney General's Office has threatened litigation over the Biden administration's actions. A coalition of environmental and tribal groups are actively suing over the Trump administration's actions shrinking the monument.