Bears Ears National Monument can be a win for conservation and school funding

Land exchange following Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument designation has generated more than $310 million for Utah schools and counties

Sunrise over Bears Ears National Monument | Bureau of Land Management | Flickr

After more than 80 years of efforts to protect the Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah, President Obama recently designated the area as a national monument. Encompassing some 1.35 million acres of stunning redrock scenery, the Bears Ears National Monument is home to an astonishing number of archaeological sites, including ruins and rock art, that are threatened by looting and vandalism.

While supporters are celebrating the designation, particularly a coalition of Native American tribes that consider the area sacred, many Utah politicians have reflexively opposed protections. Some opponents argue the designation will hurt funding for Utah’s public schools provided by some state-owned land. A closer look at a previous Utah monument shows the Bears Ears designation could be a win for conservation and school funding.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. This 1.9 million acre monument containing a vast range of natural and cultural history also encompassed pockets of land owned by Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). SITLA manages some 3.4 million acres of state trust lands and is charged with generating revenue to support public schools, universities and other beneficiaries. In addition to leasing lands for coal, oil and gas development, SITLA occasionally holds auctions in which it sells land to the highest bidder.

Within the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument, much of the SITLA-owned land resembled a checkerboard, with small scattered parcels that were not easily accessed for development. Over the course of two years, state and federal officials agreed to swap state trust land within the monument for resource-rich federal land elsewhere in the state. This transaction allowed Utah to trade isolated tracts of land for larger blocks with more potential for revenue. This land swap, passed through Congress in 1998, marked the largest federal land transaction in the continental U.S. since the Louisiana Purchase.

In addition to receiving a $50 million payment upon completion of the deal, lands acquired by Utah in the Grand Staircase-Escalante land exchange have generated more than $310 million for the state’s public schools, counties and other institutions, according to a presentation made at SITLA’s June 2016 Board of Trustees meeting. Of that, more than $135 million has been distributed to SITLA’s beneficiaries, including Utah’s K-12 education system, the University of Utah and Utah State University.

It is critical to note that the Grand Staircase-Escalante exchange has not only benefited Utah’s school system, it has benefited counties in which state trust lands were both traded and acquired. Kane and Garfield Counties, which encompass the national monument, have received more than $7 million and $5 million, respectively, since 1999. Carbon and Emery Counties, in which SITLA acquired land, have received more than $40 million combined.

Exchanging scattered state trust lands within a national monument for federal lands elsewhere makes common sense. That’s why Michael Leavitt, Governor of Utah at the time of the Grand Staircase-Escalante designation, has since praised the land exchange as a win for Utah schools and rural economies.

That’s also why the Bears Ears National Monument designation is another opportunity to advance conservation and school funding. Leaders in Utah have an opportunity to exchange the more than 100,000 acres of SITLA land within the new monument, currently difficult to access and producing little revenue, for federal lands elsewhere or other payments. Instead of litigating and obstructing the recent designation, leaders in Utah should work to ensure the success of the state’s newest national monument, which can be a win for rural economies, school funding and our American public lands heritage.