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Prettyman: SITLA's pending deal should surprise no one

Published September 9, 2013 9:24 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

People keep using the word surprise when referring to the recent controversy involving oil and gas development on Utah's Book Cliffs. The reality is that none of it should have come as a surprise.

This certainly is not the first and most likely not the last time the School Institutional Trust Lands Administration has thrown sportsmen under the bus.

Anglers got their taste of the ugliness in 2006 when SITLA officials ignored offers from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to do a land swap on an important piece of property across from Little Hole on the Green River, a blue-ribbon fishery. The land went up for auction, and the DWR, along with some help from others, ended up having to buy the 336 acres for $1.6 million.

The announcement last week that SITLA would lease 96,000 acres in the Book Cliffs, a popular trophy elk hunting area, to Anadarko came as a "surprise" to sportsmen. A large contingent of sportsmen's groups, aides from the governor's office and Utah's congressional delegation took SITLA officials on a tour of the area earlier this month. People on the tour felt that the importance of keeping the land from development was understood by all, which is why they felt like SITLA stabbed them in the back.

The same people who had been on a tour with SITLA staff showed up at a meeting Friday to see if what they were hearing was happening.

Surprise, surprise.

SITLA ignored any value of the land other than money and relying on the standard excuse "it's for the school kids." I'm a parent. I'm an angler. I'm a hunter. If my kids want to be either of the last two, or simply somebody who loves Utah's wild places, SITLA is going to have to be put to rest because there won't be anywhere to do those things.

What's more, the value of SITLA to school kids seems a little weak as the result of pillaging the remote landscapes of Utah equals 1 percent of the state's education spending. Yes, 1 percent. That turned out to be $49.12 per pupil during the 2012-2013 school year.

Don't forget SITLA is the only state agency that has allowed employee bonuses. Yup, it's all for the kids.

With no say in the decision, sportsmen went pleading to Gov. Gary Herbert. Another surprise came that one of those groups was Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, which has done nothing to protect lands or wildlife from energy development in the past.

The governor, who has done little to obstruct oil and gas development until now, "surprisingly" urged SITLA to reconsider the decision, particularly on 20,000 acres of the lands on the southern end of the area, which is largely roadless.

Herbert probably was reacting somewhat to the sportsmen's groups — namely SFW — but was more likely responding to pressure from Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. Bishop has been working on the "Grand Bargain," his effort to "create policies that will allow for energy development, outdoor recreation and habitat conservation."

Lands within the proposed lease area are included in Bishop's plan.

Here's the kicker on why sportsmen have issues with SITLA. Monies from the annual income of hunting and fishing licenses are paid to SITLA "to provide for compensation to beneficiaries for public access to SITLA lands for hunting, fishing, trapping and viewing of wildlife."

The SITLA check courtesy of hunters and anglers in 2013 was $670,048 and is marked to increase 5 percent annually through 2016, when the agreement expires.

Anglers are particularly down on the fee because so few fishable waters are included on SITLA lands. How interested are hunters going to be in paying an annual fee when oil and gas drilling pads dot the lands of their favorite and traditional grounds?

SITLA officials say they will take under advisement concerns from the governor and Bishop, but don't be surprised if the leases are awarded.

Brett Prettyman is an outdoors columnist. Reach him at brettp@sltrib.com