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The Salt Lake Tribune - Ute Land Swap

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It's so seldom these days that Democratic and Republican members of Congress, environmentalists, and state and federal land managers agree on anything, so that when it happens the phenomenon demands attention.

And that seems to be the case with legislation being proposed by U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. His bill would allow a swap of mineral rights held by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration on Ute tribal lands for mineral rights on federal lands elsewhere.

Matheson's bipartisan bill would give the Bureau of Land Management authority to finalize the deal, first proposed seven years ago, to preserve 20,000 acres of sacred tribal cultural lands in northern Grand County within the Hill Creek Extension of the Ute Reservation. It gives the state school trust fund managers the right to develop potentially lucrative oil and gas deposits beneath the surface of federal lands now managed by the BLM.

H.R. 4017 is co-sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and companion legislation is sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, both Republicans.

The issue has a long and complicated history. The tribe owns the Hill Creek Extension land, but SITLA owns the rights to the minerals beneath the surface. In 2005 the tribe and SITLA identified BLM lands with subsurface mineral rights north of Grand County that SITLA would accept in exchange for its mineral rights in the Hill Creek Extension.

The tribe, the state agency and the BLM agreed on the transaction in 2005. But when the parties tried to finalize the deal, they found the BLM needed congressional approval.

Matheson was rightly effusive about the bipartisan legislation that gives the BLM the authority it needs to make the swap.

"This bill helps the tribe consolidate its management of land that is sacred and culturally significant to the Utes. At the same time, it allows for potential oil and gas development on land not considered environmentally sensitive that would provide more school trust fund revenue and employment for energy workers," he said.

The director of wilderness policy for The Wilderness Society was equally happy about the deal protecting the Hill Creek lands, calling it "preservation of one of the most important wilderness landscapes in the lower 48 states ... ."

The chairwoman of the Ute Tribal Business Committee said the bill will secure the land "for the use of the tribe's members, our children and grandchildren," and requested quick approval by Congress.

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