On behalf of public schools, state hospitals, and universities, Trust Lands has worked on and continues to collaborate on land transfers, exchanges, and other transactions with the federal government to protect state trust land holdings. These land transactions have generated nearly $442 million for Trust Lands beneficiaries, as well as helped preserve more than 508,000 acres of environmentally sensitive lands for Utah and the nation.
In 1894, the federal government granted parcels of land to Utah from which revenue could be generated to support public schools and 11 other state institutions. As manager of what is now a 3.3 million-acre land trust, part of Trust Lands’ legal and fiduciary responsibility is to improve its land holding position and seek to trade out of environmentally sensitive federal lands or that are otherwise rendered inaccessible or undevelopable.
For example, the 1996 presidential designation of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM) enveloped more than 200,000 surface acres and mineral estate lands belonging to the public school system and other trust land beneficiaries. Trust Lands, along with Utah’s congressional delegation, worked with the federal government to ensure a fair land trade and even secure compensation for lost mineral royalties. A portion of lands acquired by Trust Lands in that exchange, known as the “Drunkards Wash Block” straddling Carbon and Emery counties, generated $1.5 million monthly in royalties from coal bed methane development for more than a decade.
These exchanges have also financially benefited many rural counties. Trust Lands administers the Land Exchange Distribution Account (LEDA), which contributes to the complex disbursement of mineral development royalties of counties affected by the GSENM exchange. To date, 27 counties have collectively received $69.7 million from this account, which was created by the Utah Legislature in 2007. In addition to protecting the financial interests of its beneficiaries, Trust Lands’ work on federal land transactions has preserved and/or protected more than 508,000 acres of Utah land.
The US Congress, through the enactment of the Dingell Act on March 19, 2019, established several new wilderness areas and a new recreation area in the San Rafael Swell, located primarily in Emery County. As part of the legislation, Congress also provided for 116,000 acres of state trust lands located within these newly designated areas to be traded to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In exchange, Trust Lands will acquire an equal value of federal lands (approximately 98,500 acres) located outside of these special management areas that have better revenue-producing potential for the Trust through the development of minerals, oil, gas, coal, renewable energy, real estate, and other activities.
This development provides much-needed funding for Utah’s public schools and will also create critical economic development opportunities for the surrounding rural communities. The completion of this land exchange is expected in late 2023.
Around 150,000 acres of trust lands are scattered in and around Bears Ears National Monument. Generating economic activity for the surrounding area or revenue for the public school system from these lands has been historically difficult due to the remote nature of the land and the prevalence of archaeologically important sites. The initial designation of the Bears Ears National Monument in 2016, followed by the size reduction in 2017, and then the re-expansion in 2021 has only compounded these challenges. Restrictive designations on surrounding federal lands and uncertainty created by political wrangling on all sides of the issue have neutralized Trust Lands’ ability to generate economic activity on these lands.
Trust Lands now has an opportunity to improve its land position significantly, both within San Juan County and other areas of the state, by trading its land holdings in and around the monument to the federal government and acquiring other federal lands with more significant revenue-producing potential. The lands that Trust Lands is targeting for acquisition have the potential to generate millions of dollars in revenue within the next few years and hundreds of millions over the long term as they are developed.
Under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, the US Congress expanded Utah’s west desert military training area known as the Utah Test and Training Range. Legislation provided for the exchange of 84,000 acres of state trust lands located within the expansion area to the Bureau of Land Management. In return, the state of Utah received 89,600 acres of federal land with greater economic development potential located in other areas of the state. Trust Lands has already generated millions of dollars of revenue for the public school system from lands received in the exchange which was completed in April of 2021.
In 2009, Congress passed the Utah Recreation Land Exchange Act, providing for the exchange of scenic state trust land in the Colorado River corridor for less-sensitive federal lands, mostly located in the Uintah Basin. The exchange was completed in 2014 with 25,000 acres of environmentally sensitive trust lands being conveyed to the federal government in exchange for 35,000 acres of BLM lands with greater revenue-generating potential for the Trust.
The Utah West Desert Land Exchange Act—enacted by Congress in 2000—provided for the exchange of 106,000 acres of state trust land in western Utah and the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area near St. George for 106,000 acres of BLM land in less environmentally sensitive areas. The acquired trust lands are now home to the ACES Delta Project (which will be the world’s largest renewable energy hub), the Wasatch Regional Landfill, the Elektron and Horseshoe solar energy projects, and several other projects which have produced millions of dollars for Utah’s school and institutional trust system and continue to provide local communities with jobs, tax revenue, and other economic opportunities.
After the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was created by President Clinton in 1996, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt struck a deal to trade 409,000 acres of state trust land inheld with the monument, tribal lands, and national forest lands to the federal government. In return, Trust Lands received 119,000 acres of federal land, several subsurface coal tracts, and $50 million in cash. Among the lands acquired by Trust Lands when the exchange was finalized in 1998 was the Drunkard’s Wash coalbed methane field, which has generated an estimated three-quarters of a billion dollars for the Trust and provided tremendous economic benefits to Carbon and Emery counties.
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