The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) state office is hoping to release its final decision on the Utah Recreational Land Exchange in January 2014, according to external affairs chief Megan Crandall.
The agency plans to publish its previously approved appraisal reports in the Federal Register at the same time, kicking off a 45-day public protest period.
If no one challenges the decision, the titles for each parcel will change hands between the BLM and Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) 60 days after the publication date, Crandall said.
Under the exchange, SITLA will transfer popular recreation areas along the Colorado River corridor, including Corona Arch, Morning Glory Arch and Castle Valley-area lands, to the BLM. SITLA, in turn, will gain ownership of natural gas-rich parcels in the Uintah Basin, where energy development could help fund the state’s public schools.
Congress cleared the way for the transfer in 2009, when it approved the Utah Recreational Land Exchange Act.
The legislative process dragged on for four years altogether, from the time that Rep. Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat, introduced the bill in the U.S. House to the moment when President Barack Obama signed it into law.
According to SITLA Associate Director John Andrews, the bill’s path through Congress was hamstrung by partisan bickering that had very little to do with the land exchange itself.
The ordeal didn’t end with the bill’s passage. A lengthy appraisal process followed, and it wasn’t until July 2013 that the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Valuation Services approved the final reports on each parcel.
By that time, more than 10 years had passed since support for a land swap gained traction.
SITLA first set things in motion in the late 1990s, when it began to auction off parcels of state trust lands in the Castle Valley area.
“There was a huge amount of interest in buying that land, but there was also pushback from the community,” Andrews told the Grand County Council on Dec. 3.
In response, SITLA went on to hold roundtable discussions that focused on the idea of a land swap.
“We started out by thinking that there might be (an opportunity for) some small exchanges between the BLM and SITLA,” Andrews said.
Over time, however, the proposal grew more ambitious.
The land exchange act authorized SITLA to transfer just over 45,300 acres to the BLM. At the same time, it gave the BLM the go-ahead to convey more than 35,500 acres to SITLA.
However, once the final appraisal figures came in, SITLA scaled its proposed conveyance down to 58 parcels covering 25,034 acres. The changes leave it with a net gain of about 10,000 acres in state ownership, according to Andrews.
The 58 parcels have a combined value of $21,530,000, compared to $21,524,000 for the 34 parcels that the BLM will receive.
“The appraisal was very favorable to the state,” Andrews said.
For the time being, Andrews said that SITLA will hold on to nearly two dozen parcels it owns near Arches National Park, the Dolores Triangle and Mineral Canyon.
“Most of what fell out was land that was just kind of out in the boonies in the Dolores Triangle,” he said.
As for the land that SITLA will gain through the exchange, 75 percent of it is in Uintah County. According to Andrews, the agency was especially interested in natural gas-rich parcels that could generate revenues for Utah’s public schools.
The BLM, meanwhile, will gain ownership of nearly all of the swapped parcels in Grand County.
If opportunities for future land exchanges arise, the BLM could acquire more parcels that have high recreation values. Andrews said his agency will probably restore some of the surplus lands it removed from the current swap.