American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program


Update on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (12-10-98)

105th Congressional Action
This update is complete for the 105th Congress. For information on more recent events, visit the GAP website.

105th Congress Action:
Several bills were introduced in the 105th Congress addressing the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but only one bill made it into law. A BLM decision to allow drilling in the monument also sparked controversy. Related activities in Congress included hearings on the Antiquities Act, which followed President Clinton's September 18, 1996 use of the Antiquities Act of 1906 to declare 1.7 million acres in south central Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument. A summary of the hearing and other bills introduced to limit federal intervention in public lands designation is available on the AGI website.

Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah) introduced the Utah Schools and Lands Exchange Act of 1998, H.R. 3830, which concerns school trust lands in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. A companion bill, S. 2146, was introduced by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and was the subject of a June 25th Senate Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management hearing. In HR 3830, the federal government would acquire the land and subsurface rights to state-owned sections included in the national monument. The state in return would get other federal land, mineral rights, and $50 million. The monument includes 176,000 acres of school trust lands and 24,000 acres of mineral rights. Elsewhere in Utah, national parks, forests, and Indian reservations contain 200,000 acres of school land and 76,000 acres of mineral rights. The bill, an agreement between Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt (R), passed the House by a voice vote on June 24, 1997, passed the Senate on October 9, 1998, and was signed into law (PL 105-335) on October 31, 1998.

House Bills
On May 20, 1998, Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) introduced H.R. 3909 to redraw the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument to omit a section that contains active oil wells. Other land that is to be excluded would be distributed to Tropic City and Kodachrome Basin State Park. Cannon states that the main objective of his bill is to remove land which was not originally intended to be included in the Monument. Cannon later introduced a modified version of the bill, HR 4287, that passed the Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, but did not advance.

On October 7th, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1127, the National Monument Fairness Act of 1997, by a 229-197 vote. This legislation, sponsored by House parks subcommittee Chairman Jim Hansen (R-Utah), would limit the President's ability to designate national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The bill is a reaction to President Clinton's designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah last year in order to halt resource development in the area, a move vigorously opposed by Utah officials. H.R. 1127 requires approval from Congress and the governor and legislature of the affected state(s) for proposed monuments larger than 5,000 acres. The bill did not pass the Senate. A companion bill, S. 477, introduced by Senator Hatch, was the subject of a February 12, 1998 hearing by the Subcommittee on Parks, Preservation and Recreation, but did not move out of the subcommittee. Several related pieces of legislation are also under consideration in Congress. For more information, see John Dragonetti's column on the subject that appeared in The Professional Geologist.

BLM Allows Drilling at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Another controversy has emerged in the continuing saga of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but for a change, this one is angering environmentalists and pleasing the oil and gas community. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has granted permission for Conoco Inc. to drill an exploratory well at a site in the monument on a previously existing lease. Environmentalists worry that this action will allow additional sites to be drilled. Francis Hunt, director of public lands studies for the Wilderness Society, commented, "[The decision] makes a mockery of the notion that this area will be protected." Conoco and BLM officials disagree. Bill Lamb, Utah state director of the BLM emphasized that the well is located at a previously disturbed site, near an existing road, and less than a mile from another site. He stated that the operation "will not have significant impact upon the geological, paleontological, archaeological, historical or biological values the monument was specifically established to protect."

Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management
U.S. Senate
June 25, 1997

On June 25th, the Senate Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management convened to hear testimony concerning S. 2146, the Utah School Trust Land Exchange.  Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY) chaired the meeting in the absence of Subcommittee Chairman Larry Craig (R-ID).  Senator Thomas opened the meeting by praising the various groups that have worked together to initiate the exchange of 377,000 acres of Utah school trust lands that reside in federal controlled units for other land, mineral resources, and $50 million.  The senator concluded by insisting that in order for the proposal to be truly successful, all participants much continue to cooperate so that all interests can be heard.

Panel 1
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) spoke to the Subcommittee about the events leading up to his proposal of S. 2146 and the goals of S. 2146.  Senator Hatch began by explaining that Utah state law mandates that school trust lands be utilized in a manner that provides funds for Utah's school children.  Yet, the designation of national parks and monuments prevents state access to these school trust lands.  The establishment of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument caused great concern in Utah since 177,000 acres of Utah school trust lands were locked up in the outer boundaries of the monument.  After President Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the total number of  acres of school trust land trapped within federally controlled land reached over 400,000 acres.  Senator Hatch believes that through the exchange, all sides will benefit, the environment will be protected, and management of public lands will be consolidated.  Since the Utah School Trust Land Exchange Act will produce a "win-win" situation and because the money for S. 2146 has already been appropriated (Utah Schools and Lands Improvement Act of 1993), the Senate should pass S. 2146 without any attachments.

Senator Bob Bennet (R-Utah) testified before the Subcommittee to address some of the concerns surrounding S. 2146.  For example, many counties within Utah believe that they will not receive full compensation for their lands.  In addition, lease holders are worried about the status of their state-held lease after it is turned over to the federal government to administer.  To handle these concerns, Senator Bennet urges the Secretary of the Interior to hold further negotiations so that all fears are addressed.  In general, Senator Bennet feels that this legislation represents a just compromise and that any concerns can be worked out on the bargaining table.

Representatives Merrill Cook (R-Utah) and Christopher Cannon (R-Utah) came forward to announce that on June 24th H.R. 3830 passed the House of Representatives by unanimous consent.  They contend that H.R. 3830 represents a fair exchange and that S. 2146 should be acted upon immediately.

Panel 2
In addition to the testimony from the legislators, Utah Governor Michael Leavitt (R) attended the hearing so as to expand on the land problems his state faces.  With school trust lands locked up in federal controlled lands, two competing land management systems emerge.  The National Park Service is obligated to preserve the land while Utah's trust manager's are responsible for using the land in such a way that will maximize revenue.  Moreover, since school trust lands are scattered, both groups have not been successful in meeting their goals.  With this land exchange, the mineral rights which Utah receives include 185 billion cubic feet of coal bed methane, 160 million tons of coal, 139,000 acres of land and minerals, and $13 million from the sale of unleased coal.  Even though Utah stands to gain so much, Gov. Leavitt wanted to be clear that the exchange is fair and equitable.  Also, the exchange will save millions of dollars in legal battles, will benefit school children, will consolidate the land for managerial purposes, and will protect the environment.  Because of the exchange, development will not threaten the national park area and all lands given to the state will be under all environmental laws concerning resource development.  In conclusion, Gov. Leavitt, who initiated the negotiations, described the exchange as "sound policy".

Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, who sponsored negotiations with Gov. Leavitt issued a written statement for the Subcommittee which was read by the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior.  Babbitt's report supported Gov. Leavitt's claims concerning the continued protection of the environment.  In fact, the federal assets proposed for the exchange with Utah were chosen with "great sensitivity to environmental concerns".  Furthermore, in places where the state receives mineral rights, development of the land must meet environmental management.  Lastly, Secretary Babbitt warned the Subcommittee that Administration support depends on the passage of a clean bill with no amendments attached.

Panel 3
County Commissioner Randy Johnson, Chairman of the Utah Association of Counties Public Lands Oversight Committee (UAC) addressed the Subcommittee on the effect the Utah School Trust Lands Exchange Act will have on local counties.  UAC opposed the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and they feel that the proposed exchange will not compensate the loss of future revenue from the mineral leases locked up in the Monument.  They estimate that the Monument contains 22 billion tons of recoverable coal, including 5 billion of the highest quality.  Since the UAC believes that mineral extraction can occur without unnecessary degradation, then, in their opinion, the exchange has not confronted the real issue of public land use.  The UAC maintains that mineral lease revenues shared between counties should remain constant.  In addition, the UAC feels that no agreement should adversely effect the Payments in Lieu of Taxes compensation to the counties that rely on them.  Also, according to the UAC, negotiators must specify grazing rights.  If these issues are clarified, then the UAC has no problem approving legislation which supports the exchange.

Echoing Mr. Johnson's concerns, Louise Liston, Garfield County Commissioner, also testified on the impact the exchange would have on her county.  Garfield County resides in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and contains a coal reserve estimated at $1.2 billion and a coalbed methane gas field worth $1 million dollars a year to Garfield County.  In addition to a lack of detail concerning grazing rights, the Utah School Trust Lands Exchange Act fails to promise Garfield County any protected access rights.  According to Commissioner Liston, the agreement decreases the amount of leasing revenues to local counties and enhances federal ownership of land.  Garfield County applauds a Kane County proposal that allows a "significant portion of the federal share of royalties paid from resource development on BLM lands [to be] deposited in a fund that would go towards mitigating the Monument impacts on both counties and decrease the dependency on annual appropriations."  Garfield County believes that many economic advantages would have occurred if the less scenic areas containing mineral resources were blocked in a "environmentally sensitive" yet beneficial way, rather than exchanging the lands.

Kane County Commissioner Joe Judd joined Garfield's County sentiment on the Utah School Trust Lands Exchange Act.  According to Commissioner Judd, the exchange moves the value of mineral resources out of Kane County to other areas.  This loss of revenue plus the cost of upkeep associated with the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has driven Kane County to economic hardship.  The county estimates that over 20% of the county and the surrounding area can be classified below the poverty line.  Kane County would like authorization for a working unit that can develop a program to "rebuild" Kane County.  Commissioner Judd added that this program can be authorized separately so as to not disrupt the legislative track of S. 2146.

To discuss the benefits of the exchange, David Terry spoke on behalf of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).  As director of an organization that controls more than 3.7 million acres of land for the purpose of providing financial support to Utah Schools, Mr. Terry is very pleased with the Utah School Trust Lands Exchange Act.  The agreement will allow the SITLA to develop tracts of land to raise money for public education without disturbing federally protected lands.  According to Mr. Terry, in 1993, Congress created Public Law 103-93, a law that required an appraisal-based method for evaluating state trust lands within national park systems.  Public Law 103-93 allows the judicial system to determine value of the land.  Since then, litigation and transaction costs surrounding the trust lands has increased.  Yet Mr. Terry believes that the exchange will eliminate these expenses because trust lands within these monuments contain vast resources for development.  The fact that an exchange of land and mineral rights will occur makes this agreement fair to both parties.  In addition, the exchange has created an atmosphere of communication and cooperation.  Finally, S. 2146 ends the threat of development in federally protected areas and allows for the state to have unified control over the school trust lands.

John Watson, Vice Chairman of the Utah State Board of Education testified before the Subcommittee to voice the Board of Education's support for S. 2146.  Ever since the federal government began designating parks in Utah, the state has had a hard time maintaining its schools and preserving its parks.  S. 2146 assures that the school lands the state will receive will be away from sensitive areas.  In addition, educators believe that investing the revenue from resource development will compound the money used for school children. In conclusion, Mr. Watson believes that S. 2146 offers a fair deal for all.

To support Mr. Watson's testimony, Paula Plant, Legislative Vice President of Utah PTA, offered the PTA's opinion.  The Utah PTA has been involved with the SITLA and believes that public education is a high priority in the state of Utah.  In fact,  Mrs. Plant testified that 50% of the annual state budget is used to enhance public education.  Yet, property tax can only be raised from private lands, which is 21% of Utah.  To provide the education that the school children of Utah deserve, the SITLA must find ways to generate money from the school trust lands.  Mrs. Plant feels that the exchange will allow SITLA to meet its purpose.

Panel 4
 To expand on the concerns of lease holders, Roger Pinkerton, Exploration Manager for Conoco, testified before the Subcommittee.  To begin with, Conoco does not oppose the land exchange proposed in H.R. 3830 and S. 2146.  Yet, S. 2146 as written does not meet all of its objectives.
 

Conoco maintains 52 state oil and gas leases within the outer portion of the Monument.  These leases account for 32,000 acres of Utah school trust lands.  Conoco also has 59 federal oil and gas leases in the Monument.  When applying for permits to drill in the Monument, Conoco claims that it took seven months longer to receive a permit to drill on a federal lease than it did to obtain a permit to drill on a state lease.  From its production on these leases, Conoco believes that the Monument area contains natural resources, and the company will continue to develop its leases so as to gain value on the resources.

Yet this development may be threatened by S. 2146.  Basically, the bill recognizes the fact that the state school trust lands within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument contain mineral resources and that development of these resources would be in conflict to the preservation of the Monument.  To resolve this conflict, the land will be traded to the federal government for preservation.  The land given to the U.S. will be subject to valid existing leases, however, Conoco believes that since S. 2146 both promises protection to leasing rights and prevention of development of Utah school trust lands in national parks, it fails to accomplish its objectives.

Conoco's main concern is that when the Department of the Interior (DOI) handles its cases, prevention of development will take priority over existing leasing rights.  To stop this from happening, S. 2146 should be amended to state that " lands will be administered by the U.S. in accordance with the processes and procedures of the State of Utah applicable to those leases."  If it is not amended and it is the intention of Congress to protect this land from development, then all stakeholders, including Conoco, should receive just compensation or they should be allowed to trade leases within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for land outside the Monument.  For Conoco, certain measures must be taken for S. 2146 to be fair to all parties involved.

To counter Conoco's claim to development, William Meadows, President of The Wilderness Society (TWS) addressed the Subcommittee on the need for preservation.  TWS's goal is to preserve the beauty of America's wild areas for future generations.  Mr. Meadows believes that S. 2146 represents a generous deal since the parks and forests in Utah are a "national treasure" and protection of these lands yields a "great intrinsic value for the United States."  The TWS supports passage of S. 2146, but only if it is passed without any attachments.

Source: Washington Post, Environment and Energy Weekly, Hearing Testimony


Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at govt@agiweb.org.

Prepared by Kasey Shewey White, AGI Government Affairs and Shannon Clark, AGI Government Affairs Intern

Last updated December 10, 1998


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