© Tim Peterson

Bears Ears Land Exchange Bills Heard in House, Senate

It has taken time, but elected officials in Utah finally seem interested in trading state lands out of Bears Ears National Monument—and Congress seems supportive.

When President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears National Monument in 2016, he also proposed a trade of around 100,000 acres of state lands within the new monument for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands elsewhere in Utah.

The state lands are school trust lands, granted to Utah when it entered the Union to support public education. Monument lands are managed for protection, school trust lands for an economic return. Their purposes are at odds. Before a trade could be accomplished, President Donald Trump dismantled the monument in 2017; President Joe Biden restored it in 2021, directing the Interior Department to work with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) to achieve an exchange.

House and Senate subcommittees heard testimony on two bills this summer (Representative John Curtis’s H.R. 3049, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration Exchange Act of 2023 and Senator Mike Lee’s companion bill, S. 1409) that would exchange trust lands in the monument and other nearby lands in San Juan County for other BLM-managed lands in the state. The subcommittees received the bills favorably and we expect they are on their way to passage.

At the highest level, the goal of this exchange is to unify ownership of the lands within the monument and allow the BLM and Forest Service to better protect the irreplaceable cultural resources, fossils, and unique flora and fauna that make Bears Ears so special.

In a rare display of solidarity, most of the parties with an interest in Bears Ears support a land exchange. The Bears Ears Commission, made up of five Tribal Nations (Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Zuni Tribe, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe) sent in letters of support, as did SUWA and several other conservation groups. The Utah legislature, Utah congressional delegation, and several Utah counties also registered their support.

Stay tuned for updates on the land exchange later this year.

—Steve Bloch

(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Summer 2023 issue)