When someone wants to deter any part of Utah state government from drilling an oil well on land that would be much better used for something else, it is apparently helpful if some of those someones are known to carry large rifles.
Friday it was announced that pressure from Gov. Gary Herbert and U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop — themselves pressured by hunters and anglers who favor the unspoiled region of southeast Utah known as Bogart Canyon — has been successful in moving the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration away from a deal that would have allowed fossil-fuel exploration and drilling in that part of Utah’s Book Cliffs.
SITLA had reached — in secret — a deal with Anadarko Petroleum for leases in a 96,000-acre expanse. It was considered a coup for the independent agency that exists only to squeeze state-owned land for income that will go to support the state’s underfunded public schools.
The southern part of that, some 18,000 roadless acres in northern Grand County, is an area beloved of sportsmen, particular big game hunters, and some of them let it be known that the prospect of oil prospecting in that area was not, in their mind, a good idea.
What big-game hunters say can pull some big weight with Utah politicians, because the hunters are known to drop more than a few dollars around the state, on everything from expensive hunting permits to extensive stays in Utah hotels. And, while a year of hunting may not have as much economic impact as a year of drilling, properly managed hunting is an eternal market for any area, while oil extraction is, by definition, a boom-and-bust operation that can pay handsomely today and leave nothing but ugly scars behind.
Herbert understandably felt blindsided by the deal. And Bishop was worried that the contract could undercut his efforts to broker some long-term agreements that would sort the public lands that deserve preservation from those that are best suited for drilling or mining.
The pact announced Friday would be an amendment to the existing deal. Exploration could proceed on most of the tracts, while the Bogart Canyon area would be off limits until at least 2016. That, it is hoped, would be enough time for Bishop to continue his efforts and for SITLA to find a way to swap the roadless land for some other acreage that would be a less controversial site for oil exploration.
None of this good news undoes the need for Herbert and the Legislature to change state law, and to institutionalize the idea that SITLA’s purpose should to include long-term considerations beyond maximizing its income.
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