June 26, 2008

House panel OKs Matheson land swap

Deal would help cut down 'checkerboard pattern'
of property

By Suzanne Struglinski
Deseret News

WASHINGTON — A House panel has approved a 40,000-acre land exchange between the Utah school trust land administration and the Bureau of Land Management.

Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Committee approved the Utah Recreational Land Exchange Act of 2007, introduced by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, that calls for the exchange near the Colorado River in Uintah and Grand counties to help reduce the "checkerboard pattern" of state trust lands and federal land.

"This bill is the result of consensus among a broad, diverse group of stakeholders — public and private, urban and rural, industry, conservation, sportsmen and education," Matheson said in a statement. "The result is a proposal that is fair to the taxpayer, beneficial to Utah schoolchildren, mindful of hunting and other public access opportunities and a better configuration for land managers to protect habitat, watershed and recreational values."

The bill still must pass the full House and Senate before going to the president for his signature. Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, both R-Utah, have the same bill in the Senate. The bill passed the House in the previous Congress, but the Senate did not vote on it.

Through the bill, BLM would receive state school trust lands in Grand and San Juan counties. The land includes portions of Westwater Canyon, the Kokopelli and Slickrock trails, multiple wilderness study areas and proposed wilderness areas and some of the largest natural rock arches in the country, according to Matheson's office. In exchange, the trust would get BLM land in Uintah County that has oil and natural gas potential, with proceeds from any eventual development directed to Utah schools.

The Utah Wilderness Coalition supported the bill's approval, calling it an example of how diverse stakeholders can work together.

"Many of the public lands to be acquired by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in this exchange qualify as wilderness and we believe this legislation advances protection for these proposed wilderness landscapes by bringing them into common public ownership," the coalition said in a statement. "At the same time, the state of Utah and its schoolchildren will benefit by receiving lands more appropriate for development and the ensuing revenues that development would provide."

The trust lands were set aside at statehood to support education. They were intended to offset the significant federal ownership of land in Utah. But the scattered nature of the lands has made productive use difficult and in recent years efforts have been made to trade tracts for areas with more earning potential. Proceeds from sales or use go into a permanent fund, with interest and earnings earmarked for education.