Facebook Twitter

STATE LAND SWAP CALLED SHORTSIGHTED

SHARE STATE LAND SWAP CALLED SHORTSIGHTED

The state's trade of the Burr Trail "switchback section" in Capitol Reef National Park for some Garfield County land was attacked as shortsighted public policy Tuesday in arguments before the Utah Supreme Court.

William J. Lockhart, attorney for a group that is challenging the exchange, told the justices that in its haste to maximize financial gain, the Division of Lands and Forestry failed to consider the long-term benefits of retaining the 640 acres of school trust property.Division attorney David S. Christensen responded that the state agency isn't obligated to administer school trust parcels as if they were public lands or national parks. He also questioned the legal standing of Lockhart's client, the National Parks and Conservation Association, and the court's jurisdiction.

The land trade has been a topic of dispute since 1987, when Garfield County officials indicated that they would use the Capitol Reef parcel as leverage for congressional funding of the Burr Trail paving project. Environmentalists said the implied threat to commercially develop the land inside the park was tantamount to extortion.

In their arguments Tuesday, the attorneys presented the court with an array of courses it could follow to resolve the matter, ranging from dismissal of the conservation group's suit on relatively narrow technical issues to a comprehensive exploration of the public policy questions involved.

"This is not about the Burr trail," Christensen argued. "This is not about the 3.7 million acres of school trust lands."

The only issue, according to Christensen, is whether the division acted properly and in the best interest of the trust in the "switchback section" trade. But Justice Michael D. Zimmerman questioned his interpretation of the scope of the case, asking, "Shouldn't we recognize the reality of what's going on? That this land exchange affects public policy?"

Former Garfield County Attorney Patrick Nolan, who represented the county as a private attorney, said the conservation association was seeking to impose the same constraints and requirements on school trust lands as apply to federal lands.

And Nolan insisted that the association has no standing. "No one has a greater interest than Garfield County and the federal government, and yet we are not even a party to this action." The association was not injured or damaged in any way by the land transfer, he said.

Zimmerman replied that a case could be be made for permitting intervention when the result is state compliance with the law.

Lockhart maintained that the division approved the exchange without regard to any consideration other than making a quick profit. Garfield traded 383 acres at the Bryce Canyon Airport and Johns Valley and three acres at the Richfield Industrial Park valued at $98,500 for the Capitol Reef parcel, which was appraised at $65,000. Lockhart said Garfield County itself did the appraisals, "which is another issue we seek to address."

He said no consideration was given to the possible value of the switchback section when combined with other parcels for large-scale land exchanges with the federal government.