At their May 3 meeting, Grand County commissioners heard a presentation from representatives of Utah’s State Institutional Trust Lands Administration on a proposed large-scale land swap, through which SITLA lands surrounded by the recently designated Bears Ears National monument would be exchanged for federal lands outside the monument. Grand County officials are concerned that some of the areas SITLA has identified as possibilities for trade are locations the county prizes for recreation or conservation. 

There are about 130,000 acres of SITLA land that became surrounded by protected acres when Bears Ears National Monument was designated. 

“Our job is to make money for school children with these lands,” said SITLA Director Michelle McConkie, citing the agency’s mandate to manage its holdings for the financial benefit of its beneficiaries. “It’s harder to make money on the land when there’s further restrictions on BLM land surrounding it.” 

McConkie was accompanied by Bryan Torgerson, Resource Specialist at SITLA, and Chris Fausett, who leads SITLA’s Surface Group.  

“BLM is also eager to not have these inholdings within their national monument—they want to have complete control over the national monument,” McConkie added. 

SITLA is looking at parcels for exchange in 21 Utah counties. About ten percent of the acres are in Grand County, though all the parcels SITLA is trading away are located in San Juan County. 

“There’s some challenges when we’re trying to find a place to go… we’re looking for the pieces of land that we can use to maximize money for the schoolchildren,” McConkie explained. 

Some Bureau of Land Management lands have existing restrictions that make them unappealing candidates to SITLA for trade. The 2019 John D. Dingell Act put a lot of BLM acres under restrictions; SITLA is currently seeking to trade out of some of those areas as well. The agency is also not interested in trading into other federal lands that present development or use restrctions, such as recreation areas, national parks, or military reserves. 

Fausett outlined many of these areas on a map of Utah on display before the commission, blacking out federal lands that would not be suitable for trade. As he finished, the map was mostly black. 

“What’s left doesn’t always line up with where the revenue-generating opportunities are,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder to find lands.” The Bears Ears swap will be the agency’s sixth major trade of the kind. 

Grand County commissioners have been in discussions with SITLA officials, identifying parcels they think aren’t appropriate for SITLA to acquire from the BLM. Following these conversations, McConkie said SITLA had revised its map of potential parcels to acquire through the trade. Some of the remaining parcels are attractive to SITLA for their potential to yeild oil and gas or other minerals. Others provide access to the river for water; others are likely candidates for residential development. One parcel neighbors the Sorrel River Ranch; SITLA said that entity has expressed interest in purchasing it. There’s also a parcel next to the Lionsback Resort below the Sand Flats Recreation Area. 

However, commissioners still saw areas included that caused them concern. Commissioner Sarah Stock pointed out a parcel mapped out near Dubinky Wash and Hell Roaring Canyon, where she said she’d recently camped. 

“There’s excellent climbing, there’s petroglyphs—it’s a beautiful, prized recreation area,” Stock said. 

Commissioner Jacques Hadler pointed out other parcels that overlap with the Horsethief and Mag 7 mountain biking trail systems. SITLA officials said they wouldn’t plan on shutting those uses down. 

Stock also pointed out that the county is pursuing a public lands bill proposal that might end up placing protective designations on lands surrounding some of the areas SITLA has expressed an interest in. If those designations do become reality in the future, the BLM would likely look to trade out any SITLA inholdings within them.

“You’re trading into areas that we’re hoping you’ll [at a future date] trade out of,” said Commissioner Kevin Walker, pointing out that many of the parcels overlap with the county’s proposed National Conservation Areas. Walker emphasized that he does support SITLA trading out of Bears Ears, but hopes it can be done without setting SITLA up for more trade-outs in the near future. Walker also pointed out that Grand County has one of the largest percentages of acreage owned by SITLA of any Utah county. 

“Given that most of the counties in the state want SITLA trade-ins, and we, I think, very much don’t… it’s got to be possible to do a land trade without trading into these proposed NCAs in Grand County,” Walker said. 

Fausett said the map is still in draft status and they’re still taking feedback on their proposals. Once they have finalized the parcels they’d like to trade, the agency needs approval from the state legislature, and ultimately federal approval. 

“An exchange of this magnitude—it has to be an actual act of Congress to get it done,” Fausett said.