SALT LAKE CITY — The Bureau of Land Management announced Tuesday the conveyance of 790 acres of public lands, known as the Ashley Springs property, to Uintah County.

The land will be managed as open space to protect the watershed and its aquifer that is a source of clean drinking water for more than 20,000 residents in the county.

Ashley Springs is one of the largest springs in Utah, supplying the area with more than 3.4 million gallons of water per day for drinking water and irrigation purposes.

The area, however, contains substantial reserves of phosphate, prompting concern from leaders that mining activity would impair the water supply.

The land transfer into Uintah County ownership was one of the many Utah provisions in the massive John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Recreation and Management Act passed last year and worked on by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

“Getting this through Congress was a monumental lift,” Bishop said. “It was just a major lift because of the federal government and mindset of staffers in Washington that you don’t give away any land for any reason, even if it makes sense.”

BLM Utah Acting Director Anita Bilbao praised the transfer.

“Protecting watersheds and aquifers is vital in this part of Utah and across the West,” she said. “We’re pleased to be able to finalize this conveyance to ensure that this source of fresh water remains intact.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called the transfer a win for Vernal, Uintah County and Utah.

“One of my first actions in the Senate was co-sponsoring and working to maintain Utah portions of the public lands package, which included legislation to direct the long-sought transfer of 790 acres of federal land to Uintah County,” Romney said. “With the finalization of this land transfer comes the recognition that our land is best managed by the communities and people closest to it. ... I’m proud to continue working to secure greater local involvement in the decision making regarding our lands.”

In a statement released by the Uintah County Commission, it said the land transfer, which will be completed in July, means the county will have direct control over its water supply.

Bishop said these types of land transfers make sense.

“Turning it over to the county allows you to do something of value with the land,” Bishop said.

This transfer protects the land and provides benefit for the local people, Bishop said, and could serve as a template for other transfers around the state.

Bishop said it is nearly impossible to get land transfers in legislation because of the belief any relinquishment of federal land to local control is a bad thing.

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He added he had to threaten to kill the lands package that ultimately passed last year if the Uintah County Ashley Springs property conveyance wasn’t in the bill.

Even though the transfer was to protect a watershed, he said he still had battles with people in Washington, D.C., who were “instinctively” opposed.

But the congressman, who is leaving his seat in Congress and running with Utah gubernatorial candidate Thomas Wright as lieutenant governor, said there are other parcels in Utah in which a transfer would have local benefit and value.

“We can parcel by parcel show how this benefits people,” he said. “This bodes well for what we could do in the future and what we haven’t done in the past.”

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