Book Cliffs lease stirs up controversy
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
Sep 05, 2013 | 2830 views | 0 0 comments | 56 56 recommendations | email to a friend | print
State education officials are cheering, while sportsmen’s groups are voicing dismay, after an exploratory drilling company won the right to search for oil and gas in the wildlife-rich Book Cliffs.

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) board voted Aug. 20 to lease about 96,000 acres of land, including the Willow Creek area, to Anadarko E&P Onshore, LLC.

Kory Holdaway, who serves as the Utah Education Association’s government affairs director, said the lands in question were set aside to provide maximum use and funding for the state’s public schools.

“This lease represents decisions by an independent board to see that this happens and is something the schools and the children of the state need, given current funding levels for our schools,” Holdaway said in a news release.

Other education officials believe the lease could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue, since the Book Cliffs Block in northern Grand County is the single largest chunk of land that SITLA owns.

But sportsmen’s groups say the deal threatens to unravel an ongoing grassroots effort to protect some of the highest-quality big game habitat in the West.

They note that just a few weeks have passed since they joined environmentalists, state wildlife officials, congressional staffers, Gov. Gary Herbert’s office and even SITLA representatives on a tour that highlighted the roadless area’s importance.

“We spent three days on horseback in that country observing the amazing variety of wildlife – everything from bears to bison,” Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Coordinator Ken Theis said in a news release. “All of us came away with what we thought was an understanding that we would work together to find a solution that recognized the value of the Book Cliffs to sportsmen and that met the needs of everyone.”

Sportsmen’s groups were careful not to criticize Anadarko. In fact, they praised the energy company for indicating its willingness to find an agreeable solution to the issue.

“We applaud that commitment, as this process can only succeed with that kind of open and honest dialog on the part of all participants,” Trout Unlimited Utah Coordinator Casey Snider said.

At the same time, the groups tore into SITLA for its perceived lack of transparency, noting that the board made its unscheduled decision after meeting with Anadarko representatives in closed session.

“The time for backroom deals and political sleight of hands is over,” Snider said.

“This was a blindside hit,” Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Regional Director Bill Christensen said in a news release.

According to Christensen, the Book Cliffs Block has long been mentioned as a key part of a proposed land exchange that aims to balance the need for natural resource development with wildlife habitat conservation.

“So, to have it yanked out from under us without a word from SITLA feels like a slap in the face – not just to us, but to everyone engaged in this process,” Christensen said.

Under the deal, SITLA would receive an estimated 17 percent royalty payment on any minerals Anadarko might produce. That money, in turn, would be diverted to the State School Fund, which earned $37.8 million in the last fiscal year alone.

The fund’s overall balance stood at roughly $1.523 billion as of June 30, yet School Children’s Trust Director Timothy Donaldson said in a statement that recent trends have negatively impacted funding for education.

According to Donaldson, drilling permit applications in the state have dropped by more than 50 percent so far this year.

In the wake of those trends, Donaldson said that development of the Book Cliffs Block is especially important.

Karen Peterson, who serves as the Utah PTA’s Trust Lands appointee, agreed.

“Trust lands exist for the benefit of Utah’s current and future school children,” she said. “It is imperative that trust lands be developed as they are the fastest growing tax-free revenue source for public education.”

Copyright 2013 The Times-Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

report abuse...

Express yourself:

We're glad to give readers a forum to express their points of view on issues important to this community. That forum is the “Letters to the Editor.” Letters to the editor may be submitted directly to The Times-Independent through this link and will be published in the print edition of the newspaper. All letters must be the original work of the letter writer – form letters will not be accepted. All letters must include the actual first and last name of the letter writer, the writer’s address, city and state and telephone number. Anonymous letters will not be accepted.

Letters may not exceed 400 words in length, must be regarding issues of general interest to the community, and may not include personal attacks, offensive language, ethnic or racial slurs, or attacks on personal or religious beliefs. Letters should focus on a single issue. Letters that proselytize or focus on theological debates will not be published. During political campaigns, The Times-Independent will not publish letters supporting or opposing any local candidate. Thank you letters are generally not accepted for publication unless the letter has a public purpose. Thank you letters dealing with private matters that compliment or complain about a business or individual will not be published. Nor will letters listing the names of individuals and/or businesses that supported a cause or event. Thank you letters about good Samaritan acts will be considered at the discretion of the newspaper.