State takes another shot at land swapping

by Tony Barboza

After several failed attempts at land exchanges, Utah is giving the idea another try. In early May, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, reintroduced the Utah Recreational Land Exchange Act. The bill would give the federal government 46,000 acres of land in southeastern and northeastern Utah, while the state would receive 40,000 acres in the northeast.

The Bureau of Land Management stands to gain popular recreation areas, including bike trails near Moab and land along a rafting route through Westwater Canyon. It would also receive potential wilderness areas near Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. For its part, the Utah Trust Lands Administration would get land in the oil-rich Uintah Basin, which it plans to lease to generate revenue for public schools. The swap would be the state’s first major land exchange since a deal on the San Rafael Swell was halted in 2002, after a BLM whistleblower alleged that the appraisal process had overvalued state lands (HCN, 11/25/02: Report slams BLM's land-exchange process).

"The appraisal process is more transparent than in 2002," says Dave Hebertson, spokesman for the Utah Trust Lands Administration. But critics say the process is still flawed: It overvalues the conservation and recreation potential of the state’s land in comparison with the federal land, which has oil and gas potential. "The state is getting special treatment," says Chris Krupp, staff attorney for the Western Land Exchange Project.

Nonetheless, the proposal has statewide support and "would not open up any land that was not already slated for oil and gas development," says Laura Kamala of the nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust. "It’s a good, common-sense solution for consolidating a lot of land along the Colorado River that would otherwise be subject to privatization and development."

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