Monumental deal over Utah's trust lands

  • Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt

    Trent Nelson photo
 

On May 8, after months of quiet negotiations, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt resolved a major sticking point in the debate over the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (HCN, 1/19/98). Their agreement trades the scattered blocks of state-owned school trust lands within the new monument for federal lands elsewhere in the state.

And, surprisingly, nearly everyone is satisfied with the deal. "This was the Achilles' heel of the monument, and major surgery has solved the problem," says Scott Groene of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Brad Barber, the chief negotiator for the governor, says "It's a very fair deal for both sides, and a great deal for the parks and monuments of Utah." Under the broad agreement, the school trust lands within Utah's parks, monuments, Indian reservations, and most national forests - a total of nearly 377,000 acres - will be traded for a $50 million cash payment and 139,000 acres of federal land elsewhere in the state.

Utah politicians had cried foul over the presidential establishment of the monument in late 1996, saying the designation would hurt the school trust - and Utah's public schools - by making it tougher to access and develop mining claims on the nearly 177,000 acres of state lands within the monument's boundaries.

As part of the deal, the State Institutional and Trust Lands Administration, the agency responsible for maximizing revenue from Utah's school trust lands, will drop two lawsuits against the federal government. The first, filed last July, said the Department of Interior had not followed Public Law 103-93, a 1993 federal law requiring trade-outs for state inholdings in Utah's parks, monuments, national forests and reservations. The second challenged the designation of the new monument, arguing that it reduced earnings from mining and grazing on trust lands.

The state agency proposed a swap of its holdings in the monument about a year ago, says Dave Hebertson of the Trust Lands Administration. During negotiations between the governor's staff and the Department of the Interior, the agreement was expanded to include almost all of the state inholdings and address both lawsuits.

Environmental groups were not a part of the agreement, but they were consulted throughout the process. Lawson LeGate of the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club says the Trust Lands Administration "has been very good about meeting with us to consider tracts of lands they'd like to acquire. They recognize that the support of the Utah environmental community is a key to the success of this effort."

"I think they were impressed that we cared enough to ask," says Hebertson. All of the lands acquired by the state have potential mineral or development value, but none of them are under consideration for wilderness status.

Utah's congressional delegation is also backing the agreement, which is expected to come before the House and Senate for a vote before the end of the legislative session next month. Under Public Law 103-93, the $50 million payment to the state will be obtained from royalties on federal coal leases in Utah.

The deal may have implications beyond the monument. The Utah Wilderness Coalition's proposal for 5.7 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Utah - now a congressional bill - also contains a checkerboard of state lands, and critics of the bill have long invoked the welfare of Utah schoolchildren.

"There's no question that this will open up a lot of new doors," says Barber. "If wilderness legislation does move forward, we now have a framework to do similar exchanges."

And if the bill specified a similar swap of the state's holdings within wilderness areas, says Hebertson, his agency would stop fighting the proposal. "The only issue in my mind is fair market values," he says. "We're not opposed to wilderness. We're just opposed to paying for it."

* Michelle Nijhuis, HCN reporter