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.