The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) board voted Aug. 20 to lease about 96,000 acres of land, including the Willow Creek area, to Anadarko E&P Onshore, LLC.
Kory Holdaway, who serves as the Utah Education Association’s government affairs director, said the lands in question were set aside to provide maximum use and funding for the state’s public schools.
“This lease represents decisions by an independent board to see that this happens and is something the schools and the children of the state need, given current funding levels for our schools,” Holdaway said in a news release.
Other education officials believe the lease could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue, since the Book Cliffs Block in northern Grand County is the single largest chunk of land that SITLA owns.
But sportsmen’s groups say the deal threatens to unravel an ongoing grassroots effort to protect some of the highest-quality big game habitat in the West.
They note that just a few weeks have passed since they joined environmentalists, state wildlife officials, congressional staffers, Gov. Gary Herbert’s office and even SITLA representatives on a tour that highlighted the roadless area’s importance.
“We spent three days on horseback in that country observing the amazing variety of wildlife – everything from bears to bison,” Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Coordinator Ken Theis said in a news release. “All of us came away with what we thought was an understanding that we would work together to find a solution that recognized the value of the Book Cliffs to sportsmen and that met the needs of everyone.”
Sportsmen’s groups were careful not to criticize Anadarko. In fact, they praised the energy company for indicating its willingness to find an agreeable solution to the issue.
“We applaud that commitment, as this process can only succeed with that kind of open and honest dialog on the part of all participants,” Trout Unlimited Utah Coordinator Casey Snider said.
At the same time, the groups tore into SITLA for its perceived lack of transparency, noting that the board made its unscheduled decision after meeting with Anadarko representatives in closed session.
“The time for backroom deals and political sleight of hands is over,” Snider said.
“This was a blindside hit,” Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Regional Director Bill Christensen said in a news release.
According to Christensen, the Book Cliffs Block has long been mentioned as a key part of a proposed land exchange that aims to balance the need for natural resource development with wildlife habitat conservation.
“So, to have it yanked out from under us without a word from SITLA feels like a slap in the face – not just to us, but to everyone engaged in this process,” Christensen said.
Under the deal, SITLA would receive an estimated 17 percent royalty payment on any minerals Anadarko might produce. That money, in turn, would be diverted to the State School Fund, which earned $37.8 million in the last fiscal year alone.
The fund’s overall balance stood at roughly $1.523 billion as of June 30, yet School Children’s Trust Director Timothy Donaldson said in a statement that recent trends have negatively impacted funding for education.
According to Donaldson, drilling permit applications in the state have dropped by more than 50 percent so far this year.
In the wake of those trends, Donaldson said that development of the Book Cliffs Block is especially important.
Karen Peterson, who serves as the Utah PTA’s Trust Lands appointee, agreed.
“Trust lands exist for the benefit of Utah’s current and future school children,” she said. “It is imperative that trust lands be developed as they are the fastest growing tax-free revenue source for public education.”