News Roundup: Bears Ears swap anticipation

Utah state land administration reverses oil and gas leases to set stage for lucrative land swap with the feds

The green squares mark the five parcels leased in the October 2020 auction. The four on the left fall within the original Bears Ears National Monument boundaries, and were reversed. The one on the right, in Recapture Wash, stands. Source: Google Earth and SITLA.

The News: Shortly after President Joe Biden announced a review of the reduced boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, Utah’s School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, pulled back a handful of oil and gas leases on state land within the original monument boundaries. The reversal will sweeten the deal for a likely land exchange between the state and the federal government if the monument is restored to its original size, and it highlights the unexpected role state lands have played in the debate over national monument designation. 

The Context: When Utah became a state, it was sliced up into six-mile-wide square townships under the Public Lands Survey System, each of which were then divided into 36 sections. The federal government granted four sections of each township to the State of Utah, checker-boarding the vast expanses of public land with over 3 million acres of these squares of land, which SITLA now can sell to private parties, lease out to drilling, mining, or grazing interests, or develop itself.

About 170 of those SITLA squares were scattered across the 1.35 million acres contained by the original Bears Ears National Monument. Monument opponents seized on that fact to justify obliterating or shrinking the new monument. In early 2017, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a staunch Republican, said, “The county schools have been strapped for cash ever since the Bears Ears Monument designation, because that designation rendered this land useless.” 

It made for an outrage-inspiring talking point, and a false one. Hatch, who retired in 2018, was either blatantly lying or is woefully ignorant of how SITLA lands and national monuments work. 

First off, the designation in no way rendered the lands useless: The state retained control over the land and its ability to lease or sell the parcels in question. Secondly, revenues from state land parcels go to a statewide pot, regardless of which county they are in (so even if all of San Juan County’s parcels were nullified, it would have minimal effect on the county’s schools). And thirdly, the monument designation was actually a gift to Utah’s schools and institutions because it set the stage for a lucrative land exchange that would net SITLA hundreds of millions of dollars more than they would have brought in from the Bears Ears parcels, most of which had next to zero revenue-generating potential. 

In fact, SITLA had already come up with a proposed exchange months prior to President Barack Obama’s national monument designation. The state would turn over 143,000 acres in San Juan County to the feds (based on the proposed 1.9-million acre monument). In return, the feds would give SITLA 144,000 acres of far more valuable parcels elsewhere in San Juan County and in Grand and Emery counties. Most likely, SITLA would have also received a direct cash payment.

A similar swap took place after Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was established in 1996. SITLA received $50 million in cash plus hundreds of parcels in areas with greater revenue-generating potential. In a 2016 email exchange between SITLA’s associate director at the time, John Andrews, and staffers at the Wyss Foundation, Andrews stated that, in addition to the $50 million, SITLA had made $135.2 million in mineral-related revenue from the exchange, plus significant returns on investments. As of March 2016, Andrews wrote, SITLA and its beneficiaries had netted at least $500 million from the Grand Staircase-Escalante swap, which Andrews himself called a conservative “guesstimate.”

So, although SITLA officials expressed “disappointment” at how the Bears Ears National Monument designation was handled, they were actually delighted at the potential payoff. And surely they were downright horrified when President Donald Trump came in and eviscerated the monument so dramatically, thereby killing any hopes of a massive land exchange. Trump’s shrinkage, then, stole money out of Utah’s school’s pockets—maybe a half-billion dollars or more. 

With a greatly diminished monument in place and a potential swap off the table, in October 2020 SITLA leased out 2,561 acres (four sections) in San Juan County to Wyoming-based Kirkwood Oil and Gas and another 640 acres (one section) to Wolcott LLC, based out of Grand Junction, Colorado. The sale brought in a whopping $13,305, with the winning bid on one parcel ringing in at just $2.37 per acre. Four of the parcels were within the original Bears Ears boundaries in an archaeologically rich area east of Comb Ridge, with one of them straddling Cottonwood Wash. 

But when Biden launched a review of the monument boundary changes, and indicated that the original boundaries likely would be restored, it revived possibilities of a big land exchange. SITLA promptly retracted the leases and refunded the payments on the four parcels within the boundaries (the fifth parcel, located just outside the monument boundaries in Recapture Wash, was not reversed). The stage is thereby set for the Biden administration to make Bears Ears whole again and, in the process, grant SITLA its request to the Obama administration made shortly after the designation, “to promptly address the issue by making Utah’s school children whole through an exchange of comparable lands.”

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Speaking of state lands, Emily Benson has a story in the March edition of High Country News about the Idaho Department of Lands’ contentious proposal to swap a piece of endowment trust land (similar to SITLA land) near McCall to a private developer. The state would get a chunk of timber land elsewhere in exchange. It’s a good look at the liminal space that state lands often occupy—somewhere in between public and not-so-public—and the way that the public is often shut out of decisions regarding those lands. It’s well worth a read. 

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BIG BREAKDOWN TICKER

That the days are numbered for coal power in the Four Corners region is becoming more and more apparent. Last week the San Juan Mine, which feeds the San Juan Generating Station, announced that it would lay off half of its workforce, or about 200 miners, this summer as the power plant prepares to shut down next year. Meanwhile, hopes that a carbon-capture scheme would save the plant and mine are evaporating, as Enchant Energy, the project’s proponent, misses critical deadlines.

The Four Corners Power Plant lies just across the San Juan River and less than a dozen miles away from SJGS. Its main owner, Arizona Public Service, said that it will shift to a seasonal schedule beginning in 2023, operating one of two units only during the summer months, when demand is high. APS says the move will reduce carbon emissions by 20% to 25% as well as cutting other pollution. A Sierra Club analysis found that if APS stopped middling around and just shut the thing down it would not only clean up the air, but also save ratepayers a heck of a lot of money.

A decade ago, as coal’s decline here at home started to manifest, the big coal companies tried to market their product overseas, particularly to Asia. For a few years the move seemed to be working, to a degree: In 2012, U.S. producers shipped some 120 million tons of coal to foreign markets (meanwhile, U.S. coal consumption has plummeted by about five times that amount since the 2007 peak). Since then, exports have fluctuated significantly; in 2020 they fell to 69 million short tons, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. 

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And to finish up, I thought I’d throw in some fun tidbits I found while researching one of last week’s stories. They come from two U.S. Geological Survey papers, one from 1916 and one from 1925, that look at the “utilization” of the Colorado River via dams. It’s kind of nuts. Basically, the authors of the studies suggested putting dams all over the place, even if it meant flooding entire towns (they were even less concerned about beautiful canyons or valleys being inundated). 

Look at the population numbers in this first one. In 1910, Silverton, Colorado, was nearly twice the size of, wait for it … Las Vegas, Nevada. I probably knew that on some level, but seeing it laid out here in this table really drove it home.

And here’s what I meant by they wanted to build dams all over the damned place. This one would have been “three miles north of Durango,” which is now the north end of town, meaning it would flood the entire Animas Valley.

And, finally, this map shows the size of the reservoir (the dark, sinuous lines running up the Colorado and Green Rivers) that would have been created by putting a dam on the Colorado River near its confluence with Dark Canyon. Notice that Moab would be entirely underwater, which is perhaps why they didn’t include it on the list of “important cities” above.