Utah Recreational Land Exchange (URLEA) Defies Spirit of the Law
The legislative legacy of Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) rests with the Utah Recreational Land Exchange Act (URLEA) of 2009. At that time, the bill received accolades from both the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and the Grand Canyon Trust. In 2009, the bill received unanimous approval by the U.S. House of Representatives and passed the U.S. Senate. In 2009, an executive summary of the bill stated, “H.R. 1275 (now Public Law 111-53-Aug. 19, 2009) would authorize the exchange of approximately 41,000 acres of land owned by the State of Utah and approximately 46,000 acres of U.S. federal land. Under the bill, the Secretary of the Interior would be required to accept the exchange if it is offered by the State.”
The exchange was to be an “equal value” land swap between the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) and the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In concept, The BLM would receive prime recreational acreage around Moab and throughout Grand County. SITLA, on behalf of the State of Utah, would receive prime mineral extraction lands in Uintah County. Upon development of mineral rights in Uintah County, all of Utah’s school districts would receive benefit of payments from the interest and mineral royalties accrued to SITLA.
According to a recent posting on the BLM website, “The BLM will acquire 58 parcels with high conservation and recreation value, totaling 25,034 acres, primarily in Grand County. These parcels will expand the BLM backcountry with world-class recreation sites like Corona Arch and Morning Glory Arch. This exchange will improve the quantity and quality of recreational experiences for visitors to public lands and waters managed by the BLM. The State will acquire 34 parcels with high mineral development potential, totaling 35,516 acres, primarily in Uintah County. The state expects development of these high potential parcels to boost public school funding across Utah.”
By titling their URLEA webpage the “Utah Recreational Land Exchange”, the BLM makes the agreement sound like a “win – win” situation for all concerned. Tourists will see a bit more protection for Greater Canyonlands, near Moab. Schoolchildren throughout the state will see school funding rise by an undetermined amount. Regarding the URLEA, BLM declared a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI). Thus, according to BLM, an acreage exchange totaling 60,550 acres is not a “major federal action” and “will not significantly affect the quality of the human environment”.
Uintah County, as well as the State of Utah, takes its name from the portion of the Ute Indian tribe that lived in the Uintah Basin. Among the 32,588 residents of Uintah County, the URLEA FONSI statement might raise a few eyebrows. Whether it is air pollution or water pollution, Uintah County has been the dumping ground for “the unwanted” since the mid nineteenth Century. Today, Uintah County features the most significantly degraded environment in the State of Utah. In fact, the degradation of both the human and natural environments of Uintah County is legendary.
Unlike most of Utah, Mormons did not settle Uintah County. In 1861, Brigham Young sent a scouting party to the Uintah Basin and received word back the area was “good for nothing but nomad purposes, hunting grounds for Indians and to 'hold the world together'". That section of country lying between the Wasatch Mountains and the eastern boundary of the territory, and south of Green River country, was “a vast contiguity of waste and measurably valueless”. Young made no further effort to colonize the area. Instead, he decided to send Ute Indians there.
That same year, President Abraham Lincoln created the Uintah Indian Reservation, thus beginning the relocation of many Utah and Colorado Indians to the Uinta Basin. In the 1880s, the federal government created the Uncompahgre Reservation (now part of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation) in the southern portion of Uintah County. The Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation comprise a significant portion of west Uintah County. There is relatively little private land in the county.
Uintah County's economy is based on extracting natural resources, including petroleum, natural gas, phosphate, and uintaite, which is a natural asphalt more commonly known by its trade name, Gilsonite. In the 1860s, Samuel H. Gilson initiated mineral extraction in Uintah County. In the early twentieth century, Gilsonite became the base for the black paint on Henry Ford’s Model T automobiles. In the early twentieth century, coal was the focus of mineral exploitation. Although now defunct, the Dyer Mine, Little Water Mine and Uteland Mine each laid waste to lands within Uintah County. Today, the county features branch offices of several petrochemical companies, including Halliburton and Schlumberger.
The February 2014 URLEA Decision of Record states, “The overwhelming majority of the non-Federal lands in the exchange are within areas designated through the land use planning process for special management for conservation and recreational purposes.” What that document does not say is that the overwhelming majority of the Federal lands in the exchange are within areas designated “Open” for oil, gas and tar sands development. Even so, the BLM FONSI statement ignores the potential impact by saying that mineral extraction on over 35,000 acres in Uintah County “will not significantly affect the quality of the human environment”.
In Grand County, with its Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and the now endangered Greater Canyonlands, the BLM paints a rosy picture of tourist dollars enhanced by the transfer of SITLA lands to BLM stewardship. On their webpage, they say, “Nearly six million annual visitors recreating on Utah’s public lands have boosted local economies and contributed to community job growth through recreation tourism. Public lands managed by the BLM in Utah contribute significantly to the state’s economy and, in turn, often have a positive impact on nearby communities. In fact, recreation on BLM-managed lands in Utah provided $490 million in local and national economic benefits in 2012.”
Again, if we look deeper, the picture is not so clear. In July 2013, Cushman & Wakefield completed the Appraisal reports for the Federal and non-Federal lands identified in the URLEA. The reports included a mineral evaluation of the exchange parcels "previously screened and identified by the State and the BLM" as having potential mineral values. Thus, if neither SITLA or BLM had previously identified the mineral resources on a given parcel, the Appraisal ignored the value of any minerals present. In fact, the Appraisal found that BLM would “experience a net gain of lands with potential for potash and sand and gravel and a net loss of lands with potential for oil and gas and tar sands”. Therefore, as SITLA and Uintah County experience a net gain of lands with potential for oil and gas and tar sands, BLM and Grand County will receive several natural arches and other sensitive sites, plus the potential for more new sand, gravel and potash mining.
In 2013, BLM claimed that it had no choice but to issue permits for potash exploration near the Hatch Point Anticline Overlook. If the Moab District Resource Management Plan Map (RMP) designated an area as “Open”, BLM said it was obligated to issue the exploratory drilling permits. Other questionable acts by the Moab BLM Field Office include the 2013 issuance of a commercial filming permit in the Desolation Canyon Wilderness Study Area. Apparently, the local BLM office saw filming of a “MythBusters” television episode as being wholly compatible with “wilderness study”.
At Hatch Point, in what had been an undisturbed, spiritual environment, drill rigs now dot the landscape. Each mineral exploration foray into Greater Canyonlands lessens the future chances of creating a Greater Canyonlands National Monument. If the extraction companies can lay waste to sufficient territory, they can effectively destroy the undisturbed environment necessary for national monument status. Meanwhile, the Moab BLM Field Office stands ready to issue permits for filming and mineral extraction on an expedited basis.
Other than brief a mention on Page Seven of the URLEA Decision Record, there is no indication of where in Grand County those "sand, gravel or potash" resources lay. If the sand, gravel and potash deposits mentioned in the URLEA are in areas designated as “Open”, we can expect to see a boon in BLM permits issued for their immediate exploration and extraction. In the case of Hatch Point potash, the Moab BLM Field Office has already demonstrated blind allegiance to its own Resource Management Plan.
Under URLEA, we can expect any "Open" lands transferred to BLM purview to become immediately available for mineral exploration. In Moab, once exploration begins, it is only a matter of time before exploitation follows. That outcome would be in direct opposition to both the spirit and the letter of this law. Each parcel conveyed from SITLA to BLM should contain stipulations that include no future mineral development. Only then shall we see an actual increase in protection for Greater Canyonlands.
A major premise of the URLEA is that the land exchange between Utah (SITLA) and the BLM shall be of "equal value". If that is true, how can 25,034 acres of non-Federal lands with largely recreational or environmental uses be equal in value to 35,516 acres of Federal lands targeted for mineral extraction? Grand County itself is going through a binge of land clearing and drilling activity unseen since the days of Charlie Steen, the "Uranium King".
In their official Appraisal, Cushman & Wakefield valued each parcel according to its “highest and best use”. Even with 198 parcels included in the URLEA Appraisal, BLM contact Joy Wehking at the BLM-Utah State Director's office told me that representatives of Cushman & Wakefield visited every site. Upon returning to their offices, correlating their field observations with the existing parcel descriptions was a daunting task. Despite their apparent best attempt, or perhaps because both BLM and SITLA failed to identify its mineral potential, Cushman & Wakefield missed badly on at least Parcel 32.
According to all the positive publicity, the intention of the URLEA is to preserve and enhance recreation and to protect environmentally sensitive lands in Grand County. That such preservation and enhancement comes at the expense of an underrepresented rural county to the north is URLEA's “dirty little secret”. In Nevada, there is a secret place called “Area 51”, which is wrapped in myth and mystery. In Grand County, URLEA “Parcel 32” is equally mysterious. In a counter-intuitive move, the BLM proposes to transfer a prime Grand County parcel to SITLA. Once it becomes part of SITLA lands, Utah can then lease it to the highest bidder or sell it outright.
According to URLEA maps and documents, Parcel 32 consists of 352 acres of Federal land adjacent to Canyonlands Field (Moab Airport). The “Oil and Gas Leasing Stipulations” for Parcel 32 are “Open Subject to Standard Stipulations”. Despite its obvious potential for commercial or petrochemical development, Cushman & Wakefield appraised the “highest and best use” of the entire parcel as “grazing land”. According to URLEA documents, Alan Swenson, Russell Stansfield and Fred Hunzeker do hold a grazing permit named “Bigflat-Tenmile”, but for only eighty of the 352 acres. That grazing permit expires in 2018. Elsewhere, in the URLEA section titled “Interests to be Conveyed or Reserved”, Parcel 32 reserves (and contains) county and U.S. highways and Union Pacific rail access, as well as a Fidelity Exploration & Production Co. “pipeline” and a Pacific Energy and Mining Company (PEMC) “gas pipeline”. Despite its “Open” status for oil and gas leasing, by identifying it as grazing land, Cushman & Wakefield erroneously appraised Parcel 32 as being worth only $780,000.
Other than the transportation interests in the property, what do we know of the current occupants of Parcel 32? Recently, Fidelity Exploration began increased culinary water purchases from the City of Moab, ostensibly for use on their rapidly expanding gas field near Dead Horse Point. Moab City Manager Donna Metzler says the amount of water the town sells to drillers is “not a big hit on the system,”. Metzler went on to say, "I don’t know exactly where they take the water. I don’t know exactly what they’re using it for... You would expect a small motel to use about that much water."
For their part, Pacific Energy, is one of the more secretive oil and gas operations in Grand County. Although they do have a website, it is identified only by their internet URL address, not the name of the company. Although their website looks professional enough, the PEMC "Oil" webpage links to a Chevron Oil Company "Crude Oil Marketing" webpage. The PEMC "Investors" webpage links to a Yahoo Finance stock listing for the company. Listed as "Over the Counter - Other", in the past year, PEMC has traded at between one cent per share and $.35 per share. Its latest close, on February 3, 2014 was three cents. Most stocks that I watch do not fluctuate by 350% in a single year. In any event, PEMC looks like a penny stock that is ripe for speculation.
Had Cushman & Wakefield appraised Parcel 32 for its potential as an oil and gas production site, or as a railroad and highway terminal or transfer-station for two of the largest oil and gas producers in Grand County, its value could have gone as high as $10 million. Not ironically, over 20,000 SITLA-owned acres, which were valued at $10 million, recently disappeared from the land swap in order to adhere to the “equal valuation” clause of the agreement.
If the current version of URLEA becomes law, what will future airline passengers and motorists see as they approach Moab from the north? As early as 2019, if the Moab BLM Field Office holds to their own Management Resource Plan, visitors can expect to see a 352-acre petrochemical production facility adjacent to Canyonlands Field. Based on its existing Management Resource Plan, and the BLM Moab Field Office's history of granting any and all conforming mineral exploration permits, the last chance to stop exploitation of Parcel 32 is to either remove it from the land swap or force SITLA to pay "equal value" as indicated by its potential for commercial or petrochemical development.
According to BLM contact Joy Wehking, SITLA is on public record that they plan to convey Parcel 32 into as yet undetermined private ownership. "It is the price we have to pay", she added. If the underlying premise of the URLEA is an "exchange of equal value", why should "we, the people" pay anything to assist private development of land designated by the URLEA as "cattle grazing land"?
Unless the BLM receives hard-copy, written protests prior to the close of comments on March 24, 2014, URLEA Parcel 32 will soon thereafter transfer to Utah/SITLA at a grossly undervalued price. If my evaluation is correct, SITLA should immediately reintroduce the remaining 20,000 acres originally targeted for inclusion in the land swap. Only with the inclusion of all $10 million worth of non-Federal parcels recently withdrawn, can the BLM claim that URLEA represents an "exchange of equal value". If SITLA refuses a fair appraisal for Parcel 32, BLM could void the URLEA and produce the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) that it should have conducted in the first place.
As of this writing, it is too late for "comments". Even sending an email to BLM will not help. The only action that will halt this land-grab is if "interested parties submit written protests to the BLM-Utah State Director". Sadly, the BLM webpage for URLEA does not include the mailing address of the BLM-Utah State Director. During a telephone call to BLM contact Joy Wehking, she informed me that the appropriate mailing address is listed at the top of the "Notice of Decision" page.
Since the BLM did not see fit to put that address on their main URLEA webpage, I will publish it here: Attn. Joy Wehking, United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Utah State Office, 440 West 200 South, Suite 500, Salt Lake City, Utah 84101-1345. Ms. Wehking informed me by telephone that as of March 7, 2014, no written protests to URLEA were then on file. With my mailing a copy of this document to her, that situation will soon change.