Utah officials are angling hard to use some of a projected $1.3 billion budget surplus to acquire a large undeveloped tract of state trust land in northeastern Utah, revered for its wooded wildlife habitat that supports some of the finest big game hunting anywhere in the West.

The idea is to safeguard public access to Tabby Mountain and manage these highlands west of Tabiona as a state forest or wildlife area.

But the state’s effort could now backfire after its petition to purchase 28,000 acres opened a competitive bidding process that could put the land in the hands of private owners, who would be free to develop it, evict ranchers who graze livestock there or block public access.

Loss of access would break many hearts in Tabiona, according to Mayor Charlie Jr. and Carol Turnbow, whose family has been ranching, logging and dairying in the scenic valley along the Duchesne River for more than a century.

“If it sells privately, so many families will lose the heritage they have had,” Turnbow told trust land officials last month. “It is a small valley. Heritage, stories, family traditions are still there.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The possibility of private ownership or loss of public access for hunting came into sharp focus last month, when the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, suspended the sale process over concerns that a sale to the state might violate the agency’s mission to maximize revenue off its holdings.

A newly formed committee that advocates on behalf of public schools and other trust beneficiaries argued SITLA’s time frame for submitting offers was too narrow to ensure a robust selection of bids and raised doubts about SITLA’s $41 million appraisal.

The new Land Trusts Protection and Advocacy Office oversight committee successfully lobbied the SITLA board to holster the sale and look for a more lucrative deal.

“We cannot conclude that the best interests of the beneficiaries [are] being served for the sale of the Tabby Mountain asset at this time,” committee Chairman Mel Brown wrote to SITLA last month. “We further recommend that alternative solutions to monetize the asset be vigorously explored to evaluate, value and optimize the value to the beneficiaries at the earliest opportunity.”

This move coming at the Feb. 21 SITLA board meeting dismayed Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike Styler, whose agency long has sought to acquire these former national forest lands straddling the line between Wasatch and Duchesne counties.

“By purchasing Tabby Mountain, DNR can protect and keep public one of Utah’s most pristine and desirable high-elevation areas,” agency spokesman Nathan Schwebach wrote in an email. “Tabby Mountain is a crucial wildlife habitat for mule deer, elk and greater sage grouse. It’s a migratory corridor for big game and a significant recreational destination for hunters, campers, wildlife viewers and others.”

Gov. Gary Herbert’s proposed budget seeks a $35 million appropriation this legislative session toward such a deal. Getting in the way, however, is SITLA’s legal obligation to generate as much revenue as it can off the 3 million acres it oversees.

One possibility for “monetizing” Tabby Mountain could be to establish a “cooperative wildlife management unit,” or CWMU, on these lands, which would enable SITLA to charge hunters to stalk big game there. However, DNR strongly opposes SITLA’s push to set up CWMUs, arguing that only private landowners are eligible to participate in the program, which provides incentives to property owners to allow hunters onto their land.

Brown is the retired Summit County legislator who championed the 1994 reforms that led to the creation of SITLA. Before that, Utah’s 3 million acres of trust lands generated little for education. Since then, it has grown the school trust fund from almost nothing to $2.5 billion. That endowment yields a fatter check each year to Utah schools, most recently exceeding $82 million.

A mother of eight, Carol Turnbow happens to serve on the Tabiona School’s community council, which helps decide how that school’s $20,000 cut is spent. She believes Utah schoolchildren would be better served by keeping Tabby in state hands and open to the public.

“I value the money from the trust, but I don’t think it would be worth the loss of that mountain,” she said. “I value the education the mountain gives the people. It would be a great loss.”

Many Tabiona residents oppose the idea of CWMUs on Tabby, according to Glen Turnbow, an in-law to Carol Turnbow who lives in Salt Lake City

“It doesn’t encourage people to be outdoors,” he told the SILTA board. “We want people to go outdoors and enjoy it. I’m not against a sale. I would hope this land would still have access, so it can continue to be a beautiful landscape and not a fire hazard.”

After SITLA accepted DNR’s petition to sell Tabby, the trust land agency invited parties to submit letters of interest by Jan. 31. The eight parties that expressed an interest then had until Feb. 15 to submit sealed offers that had to exceed the $41 million minimum bid.

Only two bids were submitted, according to SITLA deputy director Kim Christy. The paucity of bids suggests the parties weren’t given sufficient time to exercise their due diligence and assemble meaningful bids, particularly at a time of year when the land is snowbound and not easily accessed.

“The concern was that we were operating in a very compressed time frame to process this opportunity,” Christy said. He is not at liberty to identify any of interested parties or what they offered, although Schwebach acknowledged the state entered a bid.

Back when the Turnbows logged Tabby, the land was part of the Ashley National Forest, but it was traded to the state to be managed as trust lands in the 1970s. Richard Turnbow, Carol’s father-in-law, hunted rabbits there to feed the family one winter when big game was scarce.

Strebel, the Tabiona mayor, considers Tabby a secret gem; privatizing it would “devastate the community.” A sale to a private party might generate a few more million dollars for the school trust, he argued, but access to this land for recreation and grazing is beyond price.

“Hunting is a huge issue for this community,” Strebel said. “If a private entity gets it, you can kiss all that goodbye.”