Can SITLA and energy production coexist with eastern Utah’s emerging recreation economy?

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cycling coach Jesse Atwood, standing on the table, addresses members of the Uintah High School mountain bike team before a practice ride Oct. 7, 2019, at the McCoy Flats trail complex outside Vernal. Like many of the other trails under development in Uintah County, the McCoy Flats loops cross state trust lands, which are embedded among public lands in checkerboard sections. Trust lands officials are concerned Utah's expansion of trail-oriented recreation could inhibit mineral development on these lands, which are to be managed to raise money for public education.

Vernal • On a pleasant fall evening, dozens of teenage mountain bike racers gathered around a pavilion in the empty badlands southwest of Vernal, a place called McCoy Flats, as Jesse Atwood held forth on Utah’s upcoming state championships and the competitors’ past successes.

Atwood, who coaches the Uintah High School bike team, counseled the riders to clean their bikes of trail dust between rides if they want to race well.

“We will practice this Wednesday here and next Monday and then we are done. Monday we’ll be back at Red Fleet [State Park] doing our cool interval trail,” Atwood announced while standing on a picnic table before directing his racers on various trails spanning out from the pavilion. The riders pedaled off in groups segregated by skill level on trails with names like And Cookies, Got Milk, Retail Sale and the more challenging Fire Sale, as the sun sunk toward the horizon.

The increasingly popular McCoy Flats trail network occupies an intersection where the Uinta Basin’s economic past intersects with its future, illustrating how the region’s growing stake in outdoor recreation could conflict with its energy production.

While Uintah County leaders are delighted with the belated rise of recreation in the extraction-oriented basin, state trust lands officials are nervous. This is because Utah’s scattered mile-square trust sections are embedded within the federal lands that host an expanding network of motorized and nonmotorized trails. These lands are to be managed to raise revenue for public schools. That generally means oil and gas leasing in this energy-rich corner of the Beehive State, as opposed to dispersed recreation, which the agency can’t cash in on.

David Ure, executive director of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), is concerned that his agency could be prevented from developing its mineral assets once trail systems are carved across its holdings. SITLA might legally own 3.4 million acres, he said, but, from a practical standpoint, the agency controls far less when it considers how the public has come to expect unfettered use of numerous trust parcels that then become difficult to develop.

“We are in a battle all the time as to how to do that," Ure said, “but at the same time we are also putting money in to accommodate the public on our lands."

Tensions surrounding the public use of trust lands are as old as Utah statehood, but the ceaseless expansion of dispersed, trail-based recreation is exacerbating the friction. Uintah County’s release last year of a trails master plan captured SITLA’s attention, spurring its board to summon County Commissioner Brad Horrocks to a recent meeting.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the Uintah High School mountain bike team practice on the McCoy Flats trails southwest of Vernal Oct. 7. Like other trails under development in Uintah County, the McCoy Flats loops cross state trust lands, which are embedded among public lands in checkerboarded sections. Trust lands officials are concerned Utah's expansion of trail-oriented recreation could inhibit mineral development on these lands, which are to be managed to raise money for public education.

“We want to remember we are oil and gas. That’s what we do, but in a downturn in the economy, we would like to promote this other stuff. There are properties out there that have been used by people for generations,” Horrocks told the SITlA board. “People are not aware what a great privilege it is to have the SITLA land there to use.”

Ure asked him what he would do to protect SITLA's interests.

"That's a loaded question," Horrocks responded. "Most people don't understand SITLA land is private property that they have been allowed to use free of charge with no regulations."

The board pressed him on how the school trust could charge trail users, given SITLA’s fiduciary obligations to raise money for education.

"The short answer is you are 50 years too late," Horrocks said. "You have allowed it to happen for years."

And it’s not just trails that give SITLA heartburn. Hunters and anglers roam trust lands in search of game and fish. And don’t get Ure started on target shooters, many of whom leave mess and damage where they fire their weapons on open land.

Utah pays hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to ensure hunting and fishing access on trust lands and SITLA has closed some of its lands to shooting. But the agency has little hope of reaping much from dozens of parcels that are heavily used by the public for recreation.

As an example, Ure points to a hillside west of Gunnison where, in 1927, high school students installed a huge block letter G that remains to this day an iconic landmark for the Sanpete County town, rising directly above Center Street. At the time, few worried that the land was a trust section that could be put to a “higher and better use" to the detriment of the traditions that have since arisen around what is now called G Hill.

“How many generations have lived and worship that G because of the Gunnison Bulldogs? In this context, it’s kind of a worthless hill, but it serves as a tradition to thousands of people who have been raised there,” Ure said. “Do you think we could ever take that hill back?”

(Photo courtesy of Mark Henline | Gunnison Valley Gazette) The "G Hill" west of Gunnison is a special place to the citizens of this Sanpete County town, but it is owned by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration which is obligated to managed the land to generate revenue for public education. Town officials are trying to reach a deal with SITLA to preserve the hill and its famous letter G, built in 1927, in their current state.

State law requires SITLA to make money off that section if an opportunity, say a cement plant, arises. While the town would welcome the jobs, the angst a plant would cause would far outweigh any money SITLA could make.

Ure and Gunnison Mayor Lori Nay hope to work out an arrangement that satisfies both the school trust and Gunnison residents, but a deal in the form of a formal lease or memorandum of understanding has yet to be reached.

“They want a quite a lot of money for it, but we are a small town. We are trying to find funds to establish that landmark. It’s hard when you are using someone else’s land,” Nay said. “It is a beautiful hike up there. A beautiful view. It is a landmark with historic significance.”

During Utah’s so-called Black Hawk War of the 1860s, she explained smoke signals were dispatched from the hill to alert pioneers to shelter in the fort that then guarded Gunnison.

While not many more letters are going up on trust sections, Ure is bracing for miles and miles of new trails as more and more Utahns and tourists take to the outdoors by foot, ATV, horse, skis and bikes.

Uintah County’s trails plan identifies locations for future routes and ways to connect networks in outlying areas with Vernal.

Listed as a priority is a new network under development west of town at Halfway Hollow. Like McCoy Flats, existing and proposed routes course through and near SITLA sections. A loop encircles one of those mile squares without actually crossing it.

These are lands SITLA would like to see drilled should they hold oil and gas, while the county wants recreation to be a management priority. Land swaps offer a solution, but they take years to pull off — even when they have been authorized by Congress.

Pursuant to recent public lands legislation, SITLA’s McCoy Flats holdings are among several Uintah County sections that are to be exchanged for Bureau of Land Management parcels that don’t hold recreation values.

In Grand County, SITLA is looking to swap 2,500 acres around Willow Springs and Dalton Wells, a growing recreation satellite west of Moab. That trade is being worked out not with the BLM but with the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

At McCoy Flats, SITLA has erected signs under the pavilion informing trail users whose land they are enjoying — for now.

“Trail access may be restricted, routes altered or terminated, other infrastructure removed to accommodate future development,” reads a statement printed over a photo of a pump jack.

Ure realizes that evicting trails from McCoy Flats may never be politically possible even if a reservoir of oil is discovered there, but he insists Utahns should get educated on the distinction between public and trust lands before criticizing his agency for putting development ahead of public recreation.

“There’s no right answers. We are not doing things willy-nilly and being mean,” Ure recently told Utah lawmakers. He acknowledged that many trail users are school kids and their families, the very beneficiaries of the trust lands themselves.

Indeed, mountain bike racing is Utah’s fastest-growing high school sport, now with 5,000 participants, including 55 who race with the Uintah High Rollin’ Utes that Atwood coaches. These young athletes need places to ride and inevitably trails will encroach on trust lands.

While the school trust might be getting stiffed, Utah students, along with the larger economy, are benefiting from the trails.