While a House panel was expected Thursday to endorse a bill for a huge land swap designed to increase funding for Utah schools, Utah officials and others continued to squabble about it.
That could endanger its final passage, and a delicate coalition of federal, state, Indian and environmental groups backing it - especially because time is running out in Congress, which is expected to adjourn next month.The House Interior Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands was debating and was expected to pass the bill Thursday after a month's delay for Utah members to work out some of their differences.
The bill would allow Utah to trade its school trust lands that now cannot be developed because they are surrounded by national parks, forests or Indian reservations. The trade would be for federal mineral income. A value would be set by appraising the land, but estimates range from $50 million to $200 million.
But controversy has arisen about where the resources would be located that the federal government would use to pay off the value agreed on, and who would approve the final transactions. In fact, Reps. Wayne Owens and Bill Orton, both D-Utah, and Rep. Jim Hansen and Sen. Jake Garn, both R-Utah, had at various times all introduced competing land swap bills.
An original version negotiated by Gov. Norm Bangerter with federal, Indian tribe and environmental group officials called for Utah to trade for a specific list of coal leases in Emery, Sevier and Carbon counties, a telecommunications site on Blue Mountain in Uintah County and land around the Beaver Mountain ski resort near Logan.
Environmental groups have insisted that a specific list of land interests that could be swapped be in the bill to ensure the state does not develop sensitive or wilderness areas. They worry especially because Garn's office had pushed to include controversial coal leases from the Kaiparowitz Plateau.
However, Garn and Orton did not like the list, saying it did not allow other lands or interests in lands to be offered if unforeseen circumstances arise or if environmental groups do not live up to promises made in negotiations to not oppose development of traded lands. So, they introduced bills to provide more flexibility.
Garn, Orton and staff to other members told the Deseret News that a compromise appears near among Utah members on that point - but that House Interior Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., doesn't like it.
It would still include a specific list in the bill but would add that swaps are not limited to the list and that other federal land could be offered. Staff say Miller opposes that extra flexibility.
An even bigger sticking point now is that Miller is insisting that Congress must approve any exchange for any parcel larger than 5,000 acres or worth more than $5 million.
Garn has vowed to oppose any bill including such a clause, saying the Senate would not go along with similar wording in a California desert bill. He adds it "would dramatically impose congressional control over and tie the hands of Utah's governor" and set bad precedent.
Orton said he is trying to work out a compromise with Miller. It would not put the $5 million/5,000 acre limit on mineral tracts already under lease, but would put such a limit on any other land offered for swap.
"The idea of the $5 million/5,000 acre limit is to ensure public lands offered in trade are being used correctly in the public interest. For tracts already under lease, the decision has already been made to develop them. The only question under the bill is whether the cash flow would go to the state or federal government," Orton said.
Such compromises were not expected to be included in the bill at the subcommittee level Thursday, and Orton said he hopes they will be finalized and included at the full committee level.
While all members say they hope compromises can be reached soon, Orton acknowledges that even if they had all been worked out by now, not much time is left to push the bill through Congress.
"I think there's time in the House, but I'm not sure there is in the Senate - where they are still working on a lot of appropriations bills," he said. "I'm not sure whether they can sneak it in for a vote with all the other major legislation they are working on over there."