SITLA agreed to a three-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling within a roadless section of SITLA land in the Book Cliffs that is known as valuable wildlife habitat. Prior to learning of SITLA's plans for oil and gas development in the area, public lands stakeholders took a backcountry horseback tour in August of SITLA land with representatives from Congressman Bishop's office. [Photo by Tim Peterson / Grand Canyon Trust]

At the urging of Gov. Gary Herbert and U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, exploratory drilling for oil and natural gas in a roadless section of Grand County known for its wildlife has been put on hold until 2016.

Sportsmen’s groups hailed an agreement announced Friday, Sept. 13 between state-lands managers and Anadarko Petroleum that delays exploration in the 18,000-acre Bogart Canyon area of the Book Cliffs north of Moab.

This delay came at the request of sportsmen, many of whom see this area as critical component of a public lands initiative started by Bishop and Herbert.

The Texas-based company still can drill in the rest of the 96,000 acres it leased last month from the Student Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), which manages trust lands remaining from a statehood grant for the benefit of schools.

The agreement was reached after representatives from Herbert and Bishop’s offices, the land-trust agency and Anadarko met in private on Thursday, Sept. 12.

The scenic, unspoiled area placed off limits until Jan. 1, 2016, features big game, and Utah sportsmen hope it can be conserved as part of a land exchange.

The decision made in August to lease the roadless area was seen as a threat to Bishop’s public land initiative, now being negotiated, that is designed to ease contention regarding public land use in five eastern Utah counties.

“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.”

SITLA’s original decision to lease the area Aug. 27 came only a few weeks after several representatives from different public land stakeholders took a backcountry horseback tour in the roadless section. Staff from Rep. Bishop’s office toured the area on Aug. 2, 3 and 4 with sportsmen from Trout Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Ken Theis from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. There were also representatives from environmental groups including Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Grand Canyon Trust on the trip.

The three-year moratorium on the roadless area provides time needed to explore all options for protecting prime habitat for fish and wildlife in Utah, said Casey Snider, Utah coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

“We just appreciate everybody coming to the table and wanting to work with us. We trust the process and we think we can find a solution for everybody,” Snider said. “It’s good for the Book Cliffs, sure, but it is good for what we’re trying to do for the state in relationship to the congressman’s proposal.”

Miles Moretti, the president of the Mule Deer Foundation, expressed appreciation for the flexibility that SITLA showed.

“We understand the fiduciary responsibility SITLA has to the State Educational Fund,” Moretti said. “We also appreciate the need to responsibly develop domestic energy sources. With that in mind, we appreciate very much the flexibility they’ve shown.”

Last week, the Utah Board of Education rejected a request by Herbert and Bishop to delay exploratory drilling around Bogart Canyon after state-lands managers said such a move could devalue the deal they were still negotiating with Anadarko.

The two Republicans, who champion energy development, said the trust-lands agency’s secret dealings with Anadarko excluded the interests and views of Utah residents.

But Herbert and Bishop, in statements, praised the agreement to delay drilling in the roadless area.

“Providing time to work out a broader lands initiative through a more inclusive and balanced approach is a win-win for all Utahns, especially Utah’s schoolchildren,” Bishop said.

Tim Peterson, the Utah wildlands program manager for Grand Canyon Trust, was on the backcountry trek in the Bogart Canyon area with representatives from Bishop’s office, as well as SITLA and sportsmen’s groups.

He was happy to hear about the three-year moratorium.

“Grand Canyon Trust cheers the news that the leases will be stayed under the outstanding wildlife habitat in and around She and Bogart Canyons and looks forward to further engagement with all parties to protect the superlative roadless areas of the Book Cliffs,” Peterson said.

Scott Groene, director of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said that he appreciated Rep. Bishop’s work to keep SITLA from leasing “this important wildlife habitat.”

“We look forward to working with the Congressman and others as we seek to protect the nationally significant red rock wilderness,” Groene said.

While Grand County councilmember Lynn Jackson was glad to hear that SITLA reconsidered, the earlier decision to lease while participating in Bishop’s negotiations left him with questions “about many flaws in their system that this issue has brought to the surface.”

“I will continue to work with and strongly encourage state leaders in the governor’s office and the legislature to take this opportunity for conducting a fresh look at this system, to find ways to more equitably distribute trust land revenues, to require more transparency and coordination in their process, and to ultimately result in a better process for helping meet Utah education funding needs,” Jackson said.

The trust-lands agency’s board is scheduled to consider modification of the contract at a Sept. 26 meeting in St. George.