A long-standing agreement that has assured hunter access to Utah trust lands could be unraveling as state officials squabble behind closed doors over how much this access should cost taxpayers.

For the past two decades, hunters and anglers paid fees attached to their permits — now totaling $800,000 a year — for access to select lands owned by all Utahns, but managed for the benefit of schools.

But now the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) board wants to more than double that rent, upping it by $1 to $3 million per year. The agency argues it could make that kind of money by leasing its holdings that harbor big game herds — revered hunting grounds such as the Book Cliffs and Tabby Mountain — to private outfitters.

With the Division of Wildlife Resources strongly pushing back, tensions have escalated recently as a 10-year memorandum of understanding between the agencies approaches expiration.

Earlier this month, the SITLA board directed its staff to pursue more lucrative options for state lands used by hunters and to investigate forming what are called cooperative wildlife management units, which could lead to more exclusive land access in apparent violation of SITLA's agreement with the state.

A SITLA spokesman said the move was simply a contingency in case negotiations with Gov. Gary Herbert's office fail.

SITLA has every hope of renewing its access pact with the state, SITLA deputy director Kim Christy said. But, he said, "if an agreement is not reached, SITLA is obligated to explore options to secure fair market value."

"We are not trying to be combative, bullying or anything of that nature," Christy said. "We are trying to create a win-win outcome for both sportsmen and the education community."

While payments for hunting access go into an endowment supporting the state's public schools, many sports enthusiasts feel SITLA's threats to restrict that access defy decades of tradition and commercialize wildlife, which should be managed for all, not just those with the fattest wallets.

Some hunting groups liken SITLA's demand to extortion and they aren't the only ones upset with the state agency, which is tasked with managing 3.4 million acres for the benefit of Utah schools.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said SITLA's stance shows the agency is "myopic and has no soul," and has lost sight of the public interest in pursuit of cash.

"I am tired of all this blackmail," Dabakis said. "To try to extort millions from the sports public or sell it off to private interest is outrageous."

The lawmaker said he intends to draft legislation to rein in some of SITLA's powers.

"They are making bad deals for the school children of Utah," Dabakis said. "The governor needs to take control because they are out of control." Trust lands, which the federal government ceded to Utah at statehood to be administered "in trust" for schools, might be publicly owned, but they are not managed for multiple use and public access as federal lands are.

Instead, the "quasi-governmental" SITLA is tasked to "optimize" revenue off these 3.4 million acres. And over the past decade, the agency has seen huge success generating wealth, doubling the school endowment to $2.2 billion and pushing its annual payments to schools above $50 million, covering slightly more than 1 percent of Utah's education budget.

A 1971 statute that guarantees hunter access to all state-owned land does not apply to trust lands because they are to be managed for the "exclusive benefit" of schools, according to a 2012 opinion by then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

"SITLA has the option of prohibiting hunting, fishing, and trapping on trust lands altogether if it determines that such a decision is in the best interests of the trust," Shurtleff wrote.

The state of Utah, through SITLA, is charged with ensuring the trust gets maximum value for use of its lands for hunting, trapping and fishing, the opinion said. Failure to do so, Shurtleff wrote, could be viewed as a breach of SITLA's fiduciary duty.

The state Board of Education intends to hold SITLA to this obligation to receive full value in exchange for public hunting access ­— or to privatize access and get that value on the open market, according to Tim Donaldson, the board's school children's trust director.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly said repeatedly that the state must get the full benefits of the trust lands ... to help fund schools, and may not divert those assets or benefits elsewhere without full fair compensation," wrote Donaldson in an e-mail.

Under the 10-year agreement set to expire Aug. 31, the state pays SITLA a sum that increases by 5 percent a year to secure its lands for fishing, hunting, trapping and wildlife viewing. But SITLA says the $800,000 payment due next year is not nearly enough, citing a recent appraisal that pegs the worth of that access at between $1.8 million and $3.9 million annually.

That sum comes from SITLA-hired outside consultant Ken Clegg, an expert in managing private lands for wildlife. Clegg is the past president of the Utah Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit Association and is now the principal of the Springville-based firm Private Lands Consulting.

SITLA used his appraisal to win a $1 million appropriation from the Legislature last session, a funding request Gov. Gary Herbert refused to endorse. Utah Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler said Clegg's appraisal leans on faulty assumptions that inflate the value of hunting access.

"We thought it was accurate if this was private ground. The premise is flawed because it's not private ground, it's owned by the state of Utah," Styler said.

As such, he said, the land is not eligible for inclusion in cooperative wildlife management units, arrangements that allow private landowners to sell permits to hunt on their land for as much $15,000.

But according to Christy, the soon-to-expire agreement is now the only obstacle keeping large blocks of trust lands from being eligible for the cooperative wildlife management program.

Meanwhile, SITLA's counterparts in other Western states earn far less than what the Utah agency is demanding for hunter access. Colorado is at the high end at $1.3 million, while Idaho, Wyoming and Arizona charge nothing, according to Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Director Greg Sheehan.

Yet state wildlife officials offered SITLA $2 million a year in 1996, the year Utah overhauled its trust lands administration after a century of mismanagement that depleted its holdings and generated next to nothing for Utah schools.

But Don Peay, a wildlife policy power broker who was then a SITLA board member, negotiated that sum downward to $200,000, a payment described as a "necessary evil" by sports advocates.

"They latched onto us because there is an easy mechanism to raise money," said Bill Christensen, Utah-based regional director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. "It's extortion because they tell us, 'Pay us or else.' ... I'm afraid the SITLA board is getting greedy."

On Thurday, SITLA sought to hammer out a deal with Herbert's staffers, who insist the state payment should be capped at $1 million.

"We are hopeful by end of August we can have this buttoned down," Christy said.

The governor's office declined to comment, except to say it was working closely with SITLA staff.

Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at bmaffly@sltrib.com or 801-257-8713.

Twitter: @brianmaffly