A controversial land exchange that evoked bitter attacks in Congress against the Central Utah Project has finally taken place.
Interior Secretary Manual Lujan signed an order this week transferring jurisdiction over land surrounding Strawberry Reservoir - which had been managed by the Strawberry Water Users Association - to the Agriculture Department and its U.S. Forest Service.Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, an original sponsor of legislation calling for the exchange to allow better land and water management, said a ceremony has been scheduled for Oct. 30 to honor all the groups who helped end the long dispute over the land.
"I'm delighted that the transfer of land, which began back in 1986, has become a reality. I'm sorry for the three-year delay, but now we can get on with the business of restoring Strawberry to its status as the crown jewel of Utah fisheries," Nielson said.
Critics - such as Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. - complained the deal essentially had the government paying for land it already owned and said it was a sign of waste in the CUP. They vowed closer inspection of the project in the future.
When the old Strawberry Dam was originally built, the Strawberry Water Users Association was allowed to manage surrounding government land and use revenues from such things as grazing fees and cabin rentals to help pay for dam construction.
In recent years, environmental groups complained the Strawberry Water Users Association was allowing overgrazing and other environmental damage through poor management and tried to get the government to take back management of its land.
To end long and complicated disputes and the Strawberry group's claims to the land, the deal called for the government to give the group $15 million and some other concessions, including clear title to some land for a convenience store near a visitors center.
The U.S. General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog agency, issued a preliminary report saying the government likely was not legally required to pay the Strawberry Water Users more than just a few thousand dollars.
Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, has defended the cost of the exchange saying it is worth the money to end disputes over the land and improve management of it.
Legislation authorizing and funding the exchange was passed last year. But the dispute arose again this year when amendments were needed in appropriation bills to come up with money to fully fund the exchange and other CUP environmental projects sought by Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah.