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House OKs Utah’s land-swap deal

SHARE House OKs Utah’s land-swap deal

Continuing a trip through Congress at what seems near light speed, the House approved Wednesday a huge land swap proposed to bring millions of dollars more to Utah schools.

It required only four minutes of debate and passed without dissent on a voice vote.That comes just six weeks after Gov. Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt proposed to trade out a checkerboard of state school trust lands (designed to raise money for schools) that are now buried within national parks, forests and lands.

Such bills normally take at least several months to pass - and often take years. But it helped that the bill to implement the swap was introduced by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, chairman of the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands.

He called a quick hearing, forced quick votes in both his subcommittee and the full Resources Committee and brought the bill to the full House only a week after committee approval.

The bill now goes to the Senate. A hearing on it there - featuring testimony by Leavitt and Babbitt - is scheduled Thursday in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Only Hansen and Del. Eni F.H. Fale-oma-vaega, D-American Samoa, the ranking Democrat on Hansen's subcommittee, spoke on the bill Wednesday, and both praised it.

"This is an equal value exchange that is fair and equitable to all parties involved," Hansen said.

Utah would give the federal government 376,739 acres of school lands in exchange for $50 million in cash, 140,000 acres of federal lands and leases for coal and natural gas.

Faleomavaega - who once was an aide to former Rep. Gunn McKay, D-Utah - said, "It puts the land exchange issue to rest in a fair and equitable manner, and I'm all for it."

He noted fights over such exchanges have raged for more than 20 years since former Utah Gov. Scott Matheson proposed such swaps in what he called Project Bold to better fund schools - but disagreement over the value of such lands always blocked trades.

Hansen said, "I commend the governor and the secretary for finding a way to put all of the difficult issues of Utah aside and finally find a way to help the school-children of Utah."

Hansen still took a shot at the Clinton administration over its surprise creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Mon-u-ment - which contains many of the lands to be swapped and which created impetus for the trade to fulfill Clinton's promise that the new park would not hurt Utah schoolchildren.

Hansen said Clinton's action "locked up the largest and cleanest supply of coal left in this nation. . . . Unfortunately, a large share of this coal - not to mention the oil and gas in the monument - belongs to the schoolchildren of Utah."

Virtually no opposition has surfaced to the swap - except from tiny Garfield and Kane counties. Officials there say they are losing potentially lucrative mining and oil development while receiving nothing in return for their local econ-o-mies.

Members of Utah's congressional delegation say they are looking at compensating them through such means as funding for dams and pipelines to supply more water to allow farming or other development on lands now lacking water.