BLM/SITLA - Subterfuge and Obfuscation Exposed in Parcel-32 Land Exchange
Early in his first term, President Obama signed into law the Utah Recreational Land Exchange Act (URLEA) of 2009. Its full title was, “To direct the exchange of certain land in Grand, San Juan, and Uintah Counties, Utah, and for other purposes.” At that time, few people realized that the phrase, “and for other purposes” would subvert the publicly avowed intention of that bill.
If you read the official Library of Congress Summary of the enabling legislation, its wording is straightforward. It authorizes an exchange of federal lands for state owned lands within certain Utah Counties: 8/5/2009 - Public Law [Summary].
As the official summary states, the state and federal parcels exchanged were to be of equal value. Oddly, there is no mention of “recreational lands” in the official summary. Later, on an official web page, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) touted the supposed “conservation and recreation value” of the URLEA. On that web page, BLM stated the following: “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”.
On that BLM/URLEA web page, conversion of Exchange Parcel 32 to “light industrial use in future” received no mention. As URLEA became law in May 2014, the fate of those 352-acres was in direct contradiction to BLM’s “story line” about saving arches and promoting recreation within Grand County. Instead, prime open land in Grand County transferred to the State of Utah via its School and Institutional Lands Trust Administration (SITLA). At just over $2000 per acre, SITLA received industrial land at cow pasture prices.
In its “Protest Dismissed” document, BLM dismissed my protest of Parcel 32 valuation as “grazing land”. To quote that document, it stated, “The EA disclosed the current and future anticipated use of Federal Lands by SITLA. The uses identified for (Parcel 32) include: Current/grazing and wildlife habitat; Future/continued grazing use for intermediate term; possible light industrial use in future.” Without citing any corroborating appraisal documents, BLM stated that their process took "future potential development into account". If BLM appraised the industrial future of Parcel 32 against any comparable parcels in Grand County, where are those parcels located? According to my recent searches, there are no undeveloped industrial parcels for sale in Grand County, let alone a 352-acre parcel intertwined with its regional airport.
In its “Protest Dismissed” document, BLM writes that, “Environmental Assessment No. DOI-BLM-UT-9100-2013-001-EA (EA), completed in March 2013 (emphasis mine) in support of the exchange action, disclosed mineral leasing and development as the projected (sic) on many of the parcels the SITLA would acquire. The “EA”, made available for public review and comment via BLM’s Electronic Bulletin Board (EBB) in April 2013, addressed the potential impacts to resources associated with mineral development, and did not disclose any significant impacts associated with the proposed exchange.”
On Page 8 of BLM’s "Decision Record Signed", in "Section B. Land Use Conformance", it specifically states that "parcel 32 (Moab) located in the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges SRMA" was "identified for retention In Federal ownership in (its) respective RMP". Later in the same paragraph, BLM employs obfuscatory 'double-speak', saying that Parcel 32 and two other parcels were included in the exchange because, "BLM determined that a planning amendment was unnecessary as the URLEA explicitly directs the BLM to exchange certain Federal lands, provided the exchange meets certain conditions". In that sentence we learn that BLM was required to meet certain explicit conditions for a unilateral conversion of Parcel 32 from its current protected status as federal grazing land and antelope habitat to future light industrial use. Nowhere else in the Decision Record Signed, the Environmental Assessment or the Exchange Agreement do we learn why "URLEA explicitly directs the BLM" to include Parcel 32 in the exchange or which of "certain conditions" were met. Whenever BLM uses the word "certain" twice in one sentence, we should be told what those certainties are.
The BLM EBB web page referenced in BLM’s “Protest Dismissed” document contains several conflicting data points. Referencing BLM’s reasons for denying my protest one at a time, here are the facts:
1. Contrary to BLM’s dismissal, the “EA” was not “completed in March 2013”. In fact, the “public review/commentary period” did not start until 4/22/13. In fact, the EBB web page states; “4/01/2013: Environmental Assessment Being Prepared [BLM]”. Elsewhere on the same page, it states; “12/30/2013: EA Completed [BLM]”.
2. Farther on in its dismissal, BLM claims that the “EA”, as posted on the BLM EBB in April 2013; “addressed the potential impacts to resources associated with mineral (emphasis mine) development”. Concluding, the "EA" “did not disclose any significant impacts associated with the proposed exchange”.
3. The BLM document titled "Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI)" was unavailable to the public in April 2013 and was not published until February 2014. In its “Protest Dismissed” document, BLM indicates that full disclosure of all relevant documents to my protest were completed and published not later than April 2013. Clearly, with the February 2014 publication of the FONSI, such is not the case.
4. As referenced on the BLM EBB web page, the much vaunted “EA” was not completed until; “12/30/2013: EA Completed [BLM]”. Nine months prior to the publication of the “EA”, did BLM already know that it would “not disclose any significant impacts associated with the proposed exchange”? If the reader click’s the link to the final “EA” document at the bottom of the BLM EBB web page, the resulting Environmental Assessment is dated September 2013.
5. The crux of the issue is; when, where and in what form was the Environmental Assessment released to the public? Was it in April 2013, as BLM suggests in its “Protest Dismissed” document”? Was it in September 2013, as the published “final EA document” indicates? Or was it completed on December 30, 2013, as the Electronic Bulletin Board page indicates? Any way you look at it, the content and publication date(s) of the Environmental Assessment represent a moving target.
In the conclusion of its “Protest Dismissed” document, BLM states, “A protestor bears the burden of establishing that the BLM premised a decision on a clear error of law, error of material fact, or failure to consider a substantial environmental question of material significance. The protestor has not met this burden in this instance”.
Although I cannot claim that BLM has committed a “clear error of law”, its inaccuracy and the conflicting publication dates associated with the “EA” represent a multifarious “error of material fact”.
Other factual errors include limiting the scope of BLM’s environmental assessment to “the potential impacts to resources associated with mineral development”. In so doing, I believe that BLM discounted the future industrialization value of Parcel 32. Nowhere else in Grand County is there a major parcel self-certified for future industrial use. If unilaterally converting 352-acres of open land to “future light industrial use” at Canyonlands Field does not qualify as having potential environmental impact, what does?
Do not forget the bargain price of just over $2000 per acre that SITLA exchanged for unique and now pre-sanctioned industrial land. As of this writing, the Grand County Council plans to use the final URLEA “Exchange Agreement” as the basis for future resource and land use planning. As such, BLM’s designation of “future light industrial use” on Parcel 32 may well create its own self-fulfilling prophecy.
By law, the URLEA was to be an “exchange of equal value”. Only time will tell what profit SITLA will make from the sale of Parcel 32. My guess is that it will be many multiples of the $780,000 value that they exchanged. As SITLA plans for the sale of Parcel 32 into the private sector, I hope that it will be more transparent with its procedures than BLM was during the URLEA process.
As for the Grand County Council, its current makeup is stacked in favor of every possible form of mineral and industrial development. In May 2014, when the Exchange Agreement became federal law, the Grand County Council found its perfect foil. In July 2014, the council refused to disavow a planned “Hydrocarbon Highway” through the ancient and sacred sites at Sego Canyon. In its quest to pave Sego Canyon and to rezone Parcel 32 from “grazing” to “light industrial”, the Grand County Council now cites “federal law” as its legal precedent.
When SITLA does sell Parcel 32, I expect a bidding war between energy companies and Grand County developers. In the over hyped legal agreement that BLM and SITLA called a “Recreational Land Exchange”, the phrase “and for other purposes” in that law will soon create a New Industrial Desert on Parcel 32 at Canyonlands Field near Moab, Utah. As the old saying goes, you cannot judge a book by its cover. In the case of the Utah Recreational and Exchange Act of 2009 (URLEA), the exchange of Parcel 32 was in direct contradiction to the name and spirit, if not the letter of that law. If BLM and SITLA wish to maintain any claim to being stewards of the land, both must disavow such subterfuge in the future.