A group of southern Utah officials agreed Wednesday to withdraw its opposition to a proposed trade-out of school trust lands captured within federal parks, forests and Indian reservations.
Congress is considering a proposal under which Utah would relinquish control of about 200,000 acres of trust lands that cannot be developed because of their location within the federal installations. Consummation of the deal would relieve the state of a long-standing problem related to the lands and provide an estimated $50 million to $200 million boost to education funds. (See related story.)The Five-County Association of Governments, representing Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane and Washington, had lingering doubts Wednesday about the proposal after listening to state land officials explain its details. But the group agreed that while not ideal from its perspective, the plan being promoted in Congress is generally in its best interest.
"Your support is very valuable. Your opposition is very damaging," said Kevin Carter, assistant director, State Division of Lands and Forestry. Relative unity among all the disparate interests promoting the land swap has been one of the strengths Utah has relied on in trying to get the measure through Congress, he said.
In late August, the Five County Association had sent a letter to Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, objecting to the current proposal as short-sighted and lacking consideration for long-term economic benefits. Garn is pushing for the inclusion of coal interests on the Kaiparowitz Plateau in southern Utah as part of the land swap.
Carter said coal development on the plateau appears imminent anyway and including the controversial Kaiparowitz resources in the current plan could kill it for this congressional session.
Federal/state agreement on the trust lands issue now being considered could set precedent for later negotiation on trust lands that may be affected by wilderness designation - a valuable advantage for Utah, he said.
The most likely alternative - if the proposal now under consideration fails - is a lawsuit, Carter said. Utah is determined to resolve the problem so the trust lands can generate more money for education.
Under the current plan, the federal government has agreed to continue "payment-in-lieu-of-taxes" contributions to the counties that are heavily impacted by federal land holdings. If a lawsuit is undertaken, that advantage would almost certainly be lost, Carter said.
He reminded the southern officials that the trust land in the federal tracts is not now contributing anything to counties in which it is located and that it probably never will unless the state and federal governments can agree on a resolution.
Officials in the southern counties, where the bulk of the land being considered is located, feel that they are being asked to make a disproportionate sacrifice, said Sherrell Ott, Five County Association chairman and Garfield County commissioner.
"We would have liked the lands exchanged for something of value in our area," he said. Although children across the state would share equally in income generated from a swap, there would be no additional advantage to those counties from which the land is lost.
"We would sign on in two seconds if you put some of our priorities into the bill . . . We want some development," Ott said. Many of Utah's southern counties are suffering several economic stresses. Some school districts are on four-day weeks because funding is short.
The southern officials also objected to being left out of the planning process. Although county government has been represented on a task force working on the exchange, apparently local governments haven't been kept apprised of the evolving details.
Dee Hansen, director of the Department of Natural Resources, assured the association that the interests of southern Utah are not being ignored. He promised cooperation on those needs in exchange for support for the land exchange.
After lengthy discussion, the association agreed, with one abstention, to back the proposal.