A Utah land swap bill designed to protect valuable acres of wilderness in Grand County while opening up access to new areas that are rich in oil and natural gas was approved by the Senate on Aug. 5. It now heads to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The vote caps a more than four-year effort by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, to get Congress to allow federal land agencies and the state School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to exchange more than 40,000 acres in Grand and Uintah counties. The House unanimously passed the bill on July 8.
Some of the land exchanged by SITLA involved "in-holdings," state parcels in Grand County that were surrounded by federal lands and were often a source of frustration for county officials, energy companies and environmental groups. Representatives from a wide variety of interests worked together to back the legislation, Matheson said during a visit last week to Moab.
"Everybody in Utah was on board," Matheson said. "Everybody came together on this issue really quickly. It really is, at the end of the day, a big deal. Preserving that corridor [in Grand County], that's a really good thing."
"I've been working on this land exchange for more than five years, and have been impressed by the ongoing and strong support from all of the stakeholders," Bennett said in a news release. "When crafting this bill, we made sure that it would not only invest in our children's education, but also protect some of the areas surrounding our most treasured lands in Utah."
Matheson praised the passage of the bill as a trend-setting measure in Congress that, for the first time, he said, recognizes the scenic value of public lands as well as the value associated with mineral exploration.
"It's unique because, to my knowledge, it's the first time where you have scenic value really valued in a land transfer," he said.
Supporters have said the bill will result in additional revenue for SITLA, which, under the swap, will trade sections of scenic lands that have wildnerness qualities for federal lands that have limited scenic value but may contain vast energy deposits.
SITLA can then issue mining leases on the newly-obtained properties to energy companies, expanding its revenue stream for public schools, officials have said.
"We were very committed to seeing this happen," said Laura Kamala, a representative of the Grand Canyon Trust who has worked since 2005 to help get the bill through Congress. "What [the bill] essentially does is consolidate the federal estate. And it takes about 40,000 acres of SITLA land out of in-holdings."
Kamala said Grand County, and Castle Valley in particular are big winners in the land swap's passage.
"One of the really great things about this trade for Grand County and Castle Valley is protection of the [Castle Valley] watershed. Five thousand acres are being protected," Kamala said. "And 20,000 acres of the most sensitive lands are being protected from future development."
Those areas include Corona Arch, Morning Glory Arch, and acreage that is located in wilderness study areas, Kamala said.
Kamala and Matheson both noted that the land swap - the first to pass Congress since a controversial deal to trade public lands with SITLA in the San Rafael Swell was torpedoed over improper land valuations - could set a new standard for developing similar deals in the future.
"This is a contribution to solving the land management plans here in southeast Utah," Kamala said. "But we also feel it will make it easier for future land bills."
Matheson said he believes the land swap can serve as a "model" for designing and implementing similar trades in the future.