State moves to expand, preserve eastern Utah’s Tabby wildlife area, but it could cost $41 million

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) A swath of forested big-game habitat surrounding eastern Utah’s Tabby Mountain has long been a sore point among the state’s land managers.

A swath of forested big-game habitat surrounding eastern Utah’s Tabby Mountain has long been a sore point among the state’s land managers.

Wildlife officials want the undeveloped area preserved to safeguard migration corridors and public access, while trust lands officials, who administer this 28,000-acre block on the southwestern fringes of the Uinta Mountains, have held out for top dollar, even rejecting a $40 million offer from the state a decade ago.

Now Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, has signaled it is ready to make a deal after concluding the state’s school trust would be better off selling now rather than waiting for a better offer.

Gov. Gary Herbert indicated he is serious about securing this land by inserting into his proposed 2019 budget a $20 million appropriation toward setting aside a “state forest” on these lands straddling the line between Duchesne and Wasatch counties about 60 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.

The move elated big-game enthusiasts who have longed pushed a conservation deal for Tabby.

“After the Book Cliffs, this is among the top five areas that are important for all the public, whether you are a big-game hunter or a bird-watcher. It’s a big piece of ground with a high number of species. It has [mountain] lions and bears and all that," said Bill Christensen, the recently retired regional director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “There are neighboring [wildlife management areas] that make it a no-brainer to make it open to the public.”

If the Utah Department of Natural Resources acquires Tabby, the land would become part the state’s adjacent Tabby Mountain Wildlife Management Area, according to Division of Wildlife Resources Assistant Director Ashley Green.

“This parcel is unique because all the [nearby] land we own is winter range, and this would give us the higher-elevation summer range,” Green said. “Our primary goal is wildlife habitat, public access and recreation, and forest stewardship and improvement. We have access now to the block, but that is not guaranteed.”

The block’s 10,000-foot namesake peak rises in the southeast corner, near Hanna and State Road 35. DWR would administer the land jointly with its sister divisions — State Parks and Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Though SITLA is ready to sell, it would take far more than $20 million to secure a deal with trust lands officials, who are required by law to manage their 3.4 million acres to maximize revenue for education.

The Tabby block recently appraised for $41 million, and SITLA is obligated to consider offers from any party that might pay more, according to Deputy Director Kim Christy.

The 4-by-12-mile strip was once a piece of the Uinta National Forest. SITLA acquired it through a series of lands swaps in the 1960s and ′70s, back when few would have anticipated that such a trade could limit pubic access. Hunters got a rude awakening in the mid-2000s, when SITLA began insisting DWR compensate the school trust for use of trust lands by hunters.

Tabby Mountain has been a key piece of a controversial arrangement SITLA enjoys with the state in which more than $800,000 in taxpayer money is dedicated to securing hunter access on trust lands that overlap prime big-game areas.

SITLA owns the surface, while the minerals remained in federal or tribal ownership, so the school trust would not have benefited from mining or drilling on the Tabby block. The agency derives $250,000 a year from these lands through livestock grazing, telecommunications leases, timber sales, wilderness-therapy programs, water leases and hunter access, according to Christy, who knows of no oil and gas leases on these lands.

Money raised in SITLA’s land deals and mineral leases goes into an ever-growing school endowment, now topping $2 billion. Should SITLA sell the Tabby block, Christy said, Utah’s school trust fund could earn $2.8 million in annual interest off a $41 million sale. That’s more than 10 times what the agency reaps off the land now.

Had SITLA taken up the state’s $40 million offer back in 2007, the school trust fund could have distributed an additional $27 million to Utah schools over that period. Back then, officials were expecting the land to appreciate far more rapidly than it did, so they rejected the state’s offer.

“The most prudent investment right now," then-SITLA Director Kevin Carter said at the time, “is to hang on to the land.”

The governor’s $20 million budget request can cover no more than half the deal to buy Tabby. The rest would come from DWR’s federal and private partners, according to Green.

“Those are details we can’t release at this point,” he said, while emphasizing the purchase would be good for the broader public, not just hunters.

“This is important habitat for big game, but also for sage grouse, and important migration corridors for mule deer and elk," he said. "We have dozens of wildlife species that would benefit from this acquisition. We want to protect that unique public treasure.”

The deal may guarantee a management focus on wildlife and access, but mining and drilling remain a possibility should the Bureau of Land Management or the Ute Indian Tribe decide to lease the oil and gas they control under these “split estate” lands.