Utah is weary of waiting for federal funds to complete a heralded swap of recreational lands near Moab in exchange for energy swaths in the Uinta Basin, so state school trust officials plan to start paying appraisers themselves to seal the deal.
The Utah Recreational Land Exchange Act of 2009 authorized a trade of about 45,000 acres of state lands including scenic Colorado River redrock like Corona Arch for some 36,000 acres of oil- and gas-rich lands in eastern Utah. Still, the BLM has not come up with its half of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in appraisal costs needed to make it happen.
On Thursday, the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) won tentative approval from its board to pay for initial mineral and environmental appraisals that could cost $350,000. Other needed appraisals could boost the total to $750,000, half of which the state expects the BLM to reimburse in extra land when the swap is done.
"If we're doing this [swap]," SITLA Director Kevin Carter said, "it's time to do it."
The prospect of paying for appraisals with no guarantee the swap will be completed irked Margaret Bird, education specialist with the state School Children's Trust. Schools are beneficiaries of SITLA revenues and would gain from any oil and gas development on the lands that BLM would be trading to the state.
"It's mind-boggling to me," Bird said, "that an agency [BLM] that has over a billion-dollar budget cannot come up with their half when Congress has told them to do it."
She plans to contact Rep. Rob Bishop and Sen. Orrin Hatch, both R-Utah, to see if they can spur any movement by the BLM or funding mechanism through Congress.
For now, board members said SITLA could start looking for appraisers with the assumption that the state will have to recoup its costs by tacking federal lands onto the swap. If Congress or the BLM makes funds available before that, they said, then the agency can reimburse the state in cash.
BLM state office director Juan Palma is still seeking funds to pay the agency's half, spokeswoman Lola Bird said. "We all want this to happen," she added.
Environmentalists like the swap, and worked for its passage in Congress, because it protects "remarkable places along the Colorado River," said Bill Hedden, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust.
"The schoolkids come out ahead and the natural places come out ahead," Hedden said. "It's a great exchange."