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Washington • The House passed legislation Monday returning sacred lands to the Ute Indian Tribe in exchange for lands where mining interests believe they can extract natural gas.

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) and the tribe struck a deal to trade 18,000 acres in the southern region of the reservation, located in Grand County, for an equal amount of land to the north, in Uintah County.

"This is just a common-sense solution that helps both the school trust and the tribal economy," said John Andrews, SITLA associate director.

The legislation sponsored by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, was five years in the making, a collaboration that also involved the Wilderness Society.

"My 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," Matheson said. "This works better for the land managers and the local economy."

SITLA would contract with the tribe-controlled energy company to access the natural gas, using the proceeds toward its mission of funding the state's public schools, while the federal and state governments will split 12.5 percent of the proceeds.

Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced a companion Senate bill last week.

The land in question is in the Hillcreek extension of the reservation, which Congress gave the tribe in 1948.

Irene Cuch, chairwoman of the Ute Tribal Business Committee, described the land in the southern Hillcreek area as culturally important during a House hearing in March. It's the most remote and least developed area of the reservation, and the tribe would prefer to keep it that way. In contrast, the land to the north has been determined by the Wilderness Society to be less environmentally sensitive and ripe for development.

arivera@sltrib.comTwitter: @AndreasCRivera

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