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Congress takes up Utah land bill

Utah will swap mineral rights with the Ute Indians in a land exchange that advanced in Congress on Monday.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved the legislation and sent it for a vote by the Senate.

Utah is relinquishing 20,000 acres of mineral rights in a remote part of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation that the Northern Ute Tribe values for its big-game.

In return, Utah will share 20,000 acres of federally-owned mineral rights with the tribe in a more developed part of the reservation.

Utah will make the land available for oil and gas drilling in a joint venture with Ute Energy LLC, said John Andrews, associate director for Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

"We'll obtain mineral acres we can jointly develop with the Ute tribe," Andrews said Monday.

The Northern Ute Tribe since 1966 has managed a southern loop of its reservation for big game and ceremonial purposes. Utah could have forced the tribe to allow it to develop some of that land for oil and gas drilling, but that would have taken a fight with the tribe, Andrews said.

Ute tribal and business leaders didn't return calls and email messages Monday from The Associated Press.

Utah kept mineral rights on the reservation's Hillcreek extension when Congress expanded the reservation in 1948. The Ute Indians were given only surface rights on that extension, primarily for hunting along the Green River.

Once the bill passes Utah, the trust-lands administration and Ute Energy LLC will sign a contract for a joint oil and gas venture, Andrews said.

Utah and the federal government will earn royalties, said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, sponsor of HR 4027.

"My bill helps the tribe consolidate its management of land that is sacred and culturally significant to the Utes," Matheson said. "At the same time, it allows for potential oil and gas development on land not considered environmentally sensitive that would provide employment for energy workers and more money for the school trust fund."