Utah withdraws from Bears Ears land swap in response to proposals in management plan

The state of Utah is withdrawing its support of a proposed land swap of state trust lands in the Bears Ears National Monument for federal lands elsewhere in San Juan County and the rest of the state.
Utah elected Republican leaders took the action saying the federal government is “ignoring good faith input” from the state regarding the management plan for the national monument. Meanwhile the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Commission says that the withdrawal of the exchange is to the detriment of Utah’s school children and cultural and natural resources in the monument.
The Bears Ears National Monument management plan has not yet been released, but designated cooperating agencies have been providing input as the plan has been drafted over the past few years, but signs of disappointment for some entities in the direction of the draft have been made apparent over the past few months.
In January, San Juan County and Blanding city sent letters to the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service requesting another meeting with cooperating agencies ahead of the public release of the draft of the Bears Ears Management Plan. With both entities hoping to provide feedback to any possible changes made since cooperating agencies met last in late 2023.
On February 5, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed a letter to US Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland withdrawing the state from the Memorandum of Understanding to conduct the exchange of Trust Lands Administration (TLA formerly SITLA) properties for other federal properties in the state.
In a February 6 statement Cox, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams and Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz released a joint statement regarding the withdrawal.
“Utah has sought for a collaborative, inclusive approach to managing our public lands, including in the management of the Bears Ears National Monument, yet the Biden administration continues to ignore our good faith input. The federal government has signaled that it once again plans to adopt a restrictive land management plan that will harm recreational access, grazing, and other traditional public uses of these lands. When the administration is prepared to have a serious and good faith collaborative discussion about land management, we stand ready to renew discussions of a land exchange.”
The proposed swap as drafted would see 130,000 acres in the Bears Ears National Monument currently managed by TLA turned over to federal agencies, as well as 30,000 other acres throughout the state.
In exchange, 52,000 acres currently managed by the BLM in San Juan County will become TLA managed, with 111,000 additional acres gained by TLA in other areas of the state.
Areas identified to change from BLM managed to TLA in San Juan County included the Lisbon Valley area in northeastern San Juan County, as well as lands west and north of Blanding, south of Bluff, near Cal Black Airport in western San Juan County, as well as additional land in Spanish Valley.
While the draft management plan for the Bears Ears National Monument has not yet been made public, some entities have expressed disappointment in the direction of the planning process.
Speaking before the Utah House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee on February 9, Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office (PLPCO) Director Redge Johnson said their office has been disappointed with federal partners.
“We’ve used our state resource management plans, the county resource management plan,
every leverage that we have to try to get the state’s interest represented in the plans.
All the alternatives that they rolled out are troublesome at best. The preferred alternative that we are read into–and I can’t go into specifics because of the signed (memorandum of understanding) that we have–but the preferred alternative was very problematic.
It’s very unfortunate that we’re in this position but I have to lay this at the BLM because they have not been working with us or cooperative with us with our resource management plans.
It's very unfortunate that we have to take this action. But I commend the Speaker, Senate President and the Governor for being willing to play this card when it was the only card we had left to play.”
At that same Utah legislative committee hearing Moroni Benally representing the Navajo Nation read a joint statement by Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley expressing disappointment with the state’s decision to withdraw from the land exchange.
“The contemplated exchange maximizes revenue to the State of Utah for the support of Utah’s school-age children while simultaneously complying with its statutory duty to protect archeological (cultural) resources on state lands.
The Navajo Nation truly believes that contemplated land exchange is in the best interest of all three sovereigns: the United States, the State of Utah and the Navajo Nation.
The contemplated land exchange also has the support of the Bears Ears Commission which was re-established by U.S. Proclamation 10285 to ensure that management decisions affecting the Monument reflect the expertise and traditional and historical knowledge of Tribal Nations.
What is particularly troubling is that the rejection of the contemplated land exchange is seemingly not based on the merits of the land exchange, but on the separate issue of the development of a co-management plan.”
While the Bears Ears Land Management plan is not publicly available, a partner of the federal agencies published its suggestions for management of Bears Ears in 2022.
In June of 2022 the BLM, Forest Service and representatives from the five tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Commission signed a first of its kind co-management agreement for the Bears Ears National Monument.
In August of 2022 the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition published their proposed Land Management Plan, developed over two years, for the monument which was then submitted to the Forest Service and BLM.
The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC) is a group of appointed tribal representatives with historic ties to the Bears Ears National Monument area including representation from the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, and Zuni Tribe.
The 101-page land management proposal from tribal representatives lays out tribal priorities and goals for the co-management of the monument with federal land agencies, including through the creation of full-time Tribal management staff and the creation of a Traditional Knowledge Institute.
The document also outlines the cultural landscape of the monument including the natural environment including viewsheds and soundscapes, air quality, sky, water, wildlife, plant and woodland resources, geologic, paleontologic and archeologic resources.
The collaborative land management plan also cites threats and impacts to the cultural landscape including extractive industries, livestock grazing, recreation and tourism, and climate change.
The entire Collaborative Land Management Plan​​ can be viewed in full online at BearsEarsCoalition.org.
In addition to the Governor's action withdrawing the state from the MOU, a resolution rejecting the exchange is being heard in the Utah state legislature.
HJR 26 is sponsored by House Representative Casey Snider, a Republican representing parts of Cache county.
The resolution rejects the land exchange, and calls on the federal government to put forth a land management plan “in line with historical practice that would benefit all local communities and trust land beneficiaries impacted by the proposed land exchange.”
The resolution passed out of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee with a favorable recommendation by a vote of 11-2 on February 9.

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