Gov. Gary Herbert asked state officials Tuesday, Aug. 27 to scrap a lease that would open wild lands in Grand County to oil and gas exploration.
The Utah’s Student and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) has agreed to lease up to 155 square miles of the Book Cliffs region to the Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which said it would get started in an area that already has some oil and gas wells. The company’s lease also covers approximately 18,000 acres of undeveloped lands in a roadless section of Grand County that is home to big game.
The roadless 18,000 acres had been managed by the state’s Division of Wildlife Resources for wildlife grazing. Those acres are also bordered by 204,645 acres of Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Areas.
Herbert said the trust-lands agency has a responsibility to make money for Utah schools, but he expressed displeasure in the lease. Sportsmen’s groups have raised opposition. And the action may affect the efforts of Congressman Robb Bishop’s public land initiative to ease contention regarding public land use in five eastern Utah counties.
“We need to be careful about what we’re doing here,” Herbert said. “Clearly, a lot of groups are upset.”
Many of those groups that are upset are public land stakeholders that have been working with Bishop.
Herbert said the agency should look to a “longer-term strategy” that could generate even more money.
“The recent SITLA Board decision to lease the lower Book Cliffs roadless area complicates the ongoing, collaborative planning effort,” said Congressman Bishop. “We anticipated that we would encounter some challenges along the way and that there would be complex issues through which we would have to work. I appreciate Governor Herbert’s partnership and input on this matter and hope we can all keep the comprehensive planning effort moving forward.”
SITLA’s decision to lease the area came only a few weeks after several representatives from different public land stakeholders took a backcountry horsebacking ride tour in the roadless section that SITLA leased.
Staff from Congressman Bishop’s office toured the area with sportsmen from Trout Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Ken Theis from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. There were also representatives from environmental groups like Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Grand Canyon Trust on the trip.
“We felt like they pulled the rug out from under us,” said Casey Snider of Trout Unlimited.
Snider was on the backcountry trip held Aug. 2,3 and 4.
“In one afternoon of riding we saw bear, elk and deer in significant numbers. Be on a horse for one day and that is what you get to see,” Snider said. “SITLA saw that on that field trip. SUWA, Grand Canyon Trust, a couple of other sportsman groups – we all saw it.”
He said that SITLA members on the backcountry trip made no mention of the potential lease.
“SITLA made a decision that completely ignored our concerns and interests,” Snider said. “We were working arm in arm with Congressman Bishop, our governor and SITLA and by Tuesday afternoon everything was different.”
Snider said that he felt SITLA was part of the same collaborative process that all the other stakeholders were part of, despite philosophical differences or desired outcomes. He was hopeful for results that would come from the Public Lands Initiative process that allowed stakeholders to communicate and negotiate.
“There was a paradigm shift in the state, the in-fighting that had plagued public lands,” Snider said. “It is an open and honest attempt to solve problems, to engage in an open and transparent process. SUWA, they want an open and transparent process. The energy companies, they want an open and transparent process.”
All but a sliver of the 155-square-mile lease with Anadarko is within Grand County. However, on the agenda for SITLA’s Aug. 20 meeting it stated that the closed session was “Three Pines Oil & Gas OBA, Uintah County.”
Deena Loyola, public information officer for SITLA, said that they were unable to discuss the lease on the backcountry trip.
“We offered full confidentially on this matter,” Loyola said.
Loyola also said that SITLA never intended to negotiate this parcel of land.
“The sportsman groups that have been speaking out, this parcel has been on their wishlist,” she said. “From our perspective and with all the maps we’ve sent to Congressman Bishop and others, the Book Cliffs have never been on the table.”
SITLA has been exchanging parcels and buying land to increase their acreage the Book Cliffs. In a land exchange that is still under negotiation between SITLA and BLM, SITLA will gain an additional acreage in the PR Springs area of the Book Cliffs, where U.S. Oil Sands proposes to operate the first tar sands mine in the U.S.
“Of the lands that would be exchanged from BLM to the State of Utah, 31,429 acres have been determined to have potential for tar sands,” said Lisa Bryant, assistant field manager of the Moab BLM Office.
Loyola said that SITLA has acquired land within the Book Cliffs over many decades.
“It was acquired with an eye toward oil and gas and mineral development,” Loyola said.
Loyola acknowledged that it may be difficult for the change in the use the land after years of limited mechanized travel by the DWR.
“The DWR has been a solid grazing permit holder and sportsmen have been able to enjoy the privilege of a very pristine experience,” Loyola said. “But, we have someone interested in developing this and frankly, that’s a big paradigm shift.”
Bishop said the different stakeholders that are upset over the SITLA lease illustrate the need for the collaborative Public Lands Initiative.
“It is precisely why Congressman Chaffetz, Congressman Stewart, and I have worked to bring many diverse groups together to establish consensus over land use and designations. We intend to work with all parties involved to ensure that everyone gains something,” Bishop said. “We continue to make great progress toward creating policies that will allow for energy development, outdoor recreation, and habitat conservation.”
Grand County councilman Lynn Jackson has been an active participant in Bishop’s Public Land Initiative.
“I would have advocated for SITLA to trade lands in the southern end of their block for those federal lands in the northern end of the block, simply because it made sense to me to keep the roadless area roadless for the big game hunting community, and let the northern area, which already has roads and development, be developed,” Jackson said.
He said he was as surprised as the sportsman groups and the Congressman when he heard about the lease agreement.
“We were actually in the process of having these discussions with SITLA when they surprised all of us with their leasing announcement,” Jackson said. “They never mentioned to any of us that negotiations with Anadarko were apparently already under way for the entire block.”
Jackson said that the state lands to the west are adjoined by Native American lands and that federal lands east and south of the roadless area have been part of the discussion with the Bishop lands bill.
“I don’t know how this SITLA action will affect that discussion,” he said.
Bishop emphasized that the southern 18,000 acres of the SITLA block may have more value than oil and gas development.
“The lower roadless area has tremendous values beyond traditional energy resources and their conservation is a worthwhile endeavor,” Bishop said. “I am confident that all sides can formulate a solution that can benefit school kids, grow SITLA’s development opportunities, and protect worthy landscapes.”
Scott Groene, director of SUWA, stressed the importance of preserving roadless areas of public lands.
“These lands belong to all Americans, but those of us living in Southern Utah would benefit most from protecting them. Many of us live here at least in part because of the incredible freedom we have to explore and enjoy the canyons unimpeded by “no trespassing” signs or locked corporate gates,” Groene said. “At SUWA, we hope through the Initiative to keep that freedom by protecting landscapes as wilderness.”
Herbert has limited influence over the independent trust-lands agency, which controls square-mile sections of land awarded to Utah at statehood. Many of the parcels have been consolidated through land trades, and the Book Cliffs block is one of the agency’s largest.
The governor appoints a slate of board members from nominees submitted by state education officials.
“I’m calling on the board to reconsider,” he said.
Jackson spoke strongly about SITLA’s dealings.
“The model they have involves unacceptable secrecy, requires no collaboration with anyone, and they have no accountability. The governor’s only recourse is limited to appointments to their State Land Board,” Jackson said. “Not even he can give them direct instruction. SITLA needs to account to taxpayers and residents of this state, they need transparency in what they are doing, and they need to be required to coordinate and get concurrence from the counties they are so drastically affecting before taking this type of action.”
Kim Christy, deputy director of the trust-lands administration, said the board authorized the lease Aug. 20, but it hasn’t been awarded yet.
Christy said the agency will “work with parties who have expressed concern on this transaction, including the governor’s office.”
“We respect his concerns,” Christy said. “Right now we are taking his comments under advisement.”
The agency manages a checkerboard of 3.4 million acres of trust lands remaining from a statehood grant for the benefit of the schools. It raises most of its revenue from oil and gas leasing, but also sold around $250 million worth of land for real-estate development over the past decade. The trust fund topped $1 billion in cash investments in 2010.
Anadarko said it would initially look for oil and gas deposits across fewer than 78 square miles. The trust-land agency said the company’s lease could expand to 155 square miles, overlapping wild lands.
“If the first phase doesn’t yield promising results, they could back out,” Christy said.
Snider said that he views SITLA’s action as short-sighted in light of the congressman’s Public Land Inititative.
“When Congressman Bishop and the delegation was putting this together, we saw that SITLA would have greater opportunities. They are actually doing a disservice for the children in our state. They could have gotten a much larger return. It would be much bigger than what they can currently return,” Snider said. “They just sold their birthright for this mess of pottage.”