By Thomas Burr
A measure that would preserve Ute Indian lands while opening up other areas in Utah for oil and gas exploration appears to be winning over environmentalists, tribal officials and land managers.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jim Matheson, would allow the tribe a long-sought land exchange that sets aside culturally important acres while opening up potentially energy-rich areas for the state's school trust fund. A congressional subcommittee focused on the bill Tuesday, and witnesses lauded the compromise measure.
"This legislation provides the opportunity to advance the preservation of one of the most important wilderness landscapes in the lower 48 states, and does so in a way that benefits the Ute Indian Tribe and state of Utah as well," testified Paul Spitler, director of wilderness policy with The Wilderness Society.
The Utes hold the surface rights to the 20,000 acres in northern Grand County that fall within the Ute Indian Reservation, but the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration owns the mineral rights.
The tribe, the state and Bureau of Land Management officials reached an agreement to exchange land for the mineral rights, but the BLM, it turned out, didn't have the legal authority to make the deal. Matheson's bill allows the agreement to move forward in this specific case.
The Democratic congressman says the legislation should make all parties happy.
"This bill helps the tribe consolidate its management of land that is sacred and culturally significant to the Utes," Matheson said in a statement. "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."
Irene Cuch, chairwoman of the Ute Tribal Business Committee, asked Congress to quickly pass the legislation to get the agreement in place.
The deal, she said, "will be a significant step in securing the southern part of the Hill Creek Extension for the use of the tribe's members, our children and grandchildren," she testified.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is co-sponsoring the bill in the House, and Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee have introduced companion legislation in the Senate.