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School trust land swap clears a hurdle in House

SHARE School trust land swap clears a hurdle in House

A massive land swap to benefit Utah schools - proposed last month by Gov. Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt - took its first step through Congress Thursday.

The House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands passed by voice vote a bill to swap out a checkerboard of state school trust lands (designed to raise money for schools) that are now buried within national parks, forests and other federal lands.It now goes to the full House Resources Committee.

In the deal, Utah would give the federal government 376,000 acres of school lands in exchange for $50 million in cash, 140,000 acres of federal lands and leases for coal and natural gas.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, said officials are also working hard to resolve the only minor opposition that has arisen to the deal - from small Kane and Garfield counties.

Officials there worry the swap would forever block lucrative mining of some coal and oil fields in their counties, and give their local economies nothing in return except low wage jobs related to tourism - such as hotel maids and gasoline station attendants.

Cannon said officials are looking at possibly compensating the counties by building and/or repairing some dams and pipelines to develop more water there to allow farming or other development on lands now lacking water.

He said if that can be worked out, he hopes to add it to the land-swap bill. But if that would delay the bill, he said compensation may be made in side-deals instead.

"We will not stop this legislation, but we would like to have some accommodation," he said.

He added during debate, "We have an obligation to creatively provide these counties an economic future whether by expanding water resources, creating new jobs or some other innovation."

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, chairman of the subcommittee and House sponsor of the land-swap bill, said it would swap out all state lands trapped by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument when it was formed two years ago, and many other lands isolated by national forests and Bureau of Land Management areas.

The subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Del. Eni F.H. Faleo-ma-vaega of American Samoa, said, "This puts the land exchange issue to rest in a fair and equitable manner."