Some Republican Utah lawmakers say the federal government has not been negotiating in good faith when it comes to trading out 167,500 acres of school trust lands contained with the Bears Ears National Monument, so they are done talking — for now.
Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, is sponsoring HJR26, which successfully passed out of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on an 11-2 vote Friday and makes clear the state of Utah’s displeasure with its interaction with the Biden administration over the school trust lands exchange.
“Unfortunately, despite the fact that we had a federal agreement and federal legislation, plus state authorization to move forward with that transfer — as things stand now, talks on what the future of what Bears Ears Monument will be have deteriorated to such an extent that it’s no longer in the best interests of our school kids in those communities,” to move forward, Snider said.
Although there was a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. Department of Interior and the state of Utah, it was never ratified by Congress.
Redge Johnson, executive director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, told committee members that despite being involved in the planning process for two years for the 1.7 million-acre monument, Utah’s interests have been ignored.
“We’re very disappointed with our federal partners,” he emphasized.
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said it is in the best interest of Utah to retain those school trust lands until negotiations take a more favorable turn.
“Given the nature of what’s taking place and the denial of existing rights that are there and historical rights and the impact of that, we’re saying we need to step back and preserve those rights of the people that we’re trying to protect,” Stratton said.
But Moroni Benally, on behalf of Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, read a statement in opposition to the resolution.
“What is particularly troubling is that the rejection of the contemplative land exchange is seemingly not based on the merits of the land exchange but on the separate issue of the development of a co-management plan. The Navajo Nation is always willing to work with the state of Utah on a sovereign to sovereign basis,” Benally said, adding that rejecting the land exchange is counterproductive to the sovereign-to-sovereign relationship the nation has with the state of Utah.
The controversial monument has gone through several iterations, first with a 2016 designation by President Barack Obama, a significant and subsequent downsizing of the monument by President Donald Trump after he was elected and a restoration of the monument by President Joe Biden when he took office.
In 2022, the state of Utah, as well as Kane and Garfield counties, challenged in federal court both the restoration of Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by the Biden administration. Another suit also challenged presidential authority under the Antiquities Act to designate monuments. Both lawsuits were subsequently tossed by a federal judge.
The resolution now advances to the House for consideration.