In Utah, public access to state lands comes at a cost

Public access to trust lands varies widely from state to state.

 

How much is hunting and fishing access to 3.4 million acres of land in Utah worth? Last year, the answer was $776,000. That was the amount the Utah Department of Natural Resources paid another state agency, the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), to secure public access to state trust lands, granted to Western states by the federal government to generate money for schools and other public institutions.

This fall, however, the deal between the Natural Resources Department and SITLA expired. In negotiating its renewal, SITLA wanted to raise its fee to market rates, estimated at $1.8 to $3.9 million a year for the 1 million acres that have commercial hunting value. If the department didn’t pay up, SITLA seemed ready to lease exclusive access to beloved places like the Book Cliffs — a vast wilderness of rugged bluffs and forested valleys teeming with elk, mule deer and cutthroat trout — to wealthy hunters. Access to prime areas would be scooped up mainly by customers willing to pay thousands of dollars for a single hunt, with only a handful of permits issued through a public lottery.

Kim Christy, SITLA’s deputy director, argued that the agency was merely fulfilling its obligation under the state Constitution to optimize revenue. But many sportsmen saw it differently. Bill Christensen of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation says access to state lands shouldn’t be reserved for the highest bidders. And SITLA’s demands underscored his fears about what could happen should federal lands be transferred to state control: privatization and loss of access. “I have been very concerned about how greedy SITLA has been in recent years,” Christensen says.

Bison roam Winter Ridge, which includes a large parcel of SITLA land in the Book Cliffs, about 60 miles south of Vernal, Utah.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

State trust lands are owned by public entities, but they aren’t “public” the way federal lands are. Most states don’t have to manage them for multiple uses, so there’s no guarantee of public access for hunting, hiking and camping. Instead, these lands are managed to make money, traditionally by leasing them for grazing, mining, timber or energy development. Sometimes the land is sold outright.

The mandate that states have is often interpreted as this really rigid thing,says Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, a Montana-based free-market think tank. But hunting, especially, can be a source of revenue for state trusts. “There are ways to allow access or provide conservation benefits while still meeting the requirement to benefit the trust.”

Public access to trust lands varies widely from state to state. Idaho and Wyoming allow free access, while New Mexico and Colorado have interagency payment schemes similar to Utah’s. Still, access is provided primarily at the discretion of state agencies, leaving the public with little say in whether certain parcels are put up for sale, threatened with development or closed to the public.

Colorado’s interagency agreement, for instance, only allows public access to about 20 percent of state trust lands. Another 8 percent is leased for private recreation, mostly to individuals or outfitters for hunting or fishing. They go out to the highest bidder,” says Tim Brass, director for state policies for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Utah’s interagency agreements have so far prevented the state from privatizing hunting access. The money the Department of Natural Resources pays SITLA ensures access to any trust lands that are unencumberedby potentially dangerous activities, like an active mine or oil well.

As on federal lands, energy development can also threaten the integrity of wild places and cause conflict, even when access isn’t lost. In 2013, for instance, SITLA leased almost 100,000 acres in the Book Cliffs to Anadarko for oil and gas development. Following outcry from powerful politicians and hunters, who value the vast, game-rich roadless area, the company agreed not to drill the most ecologically sensitive portion of the leased area for a few years. That meant that the public could still hunt there — at least as long as SITLA got its fees to preserve public access.

In October, the two agencies settled on a new agreement: The Natural Resources Department will pay SITLA nearly $800,000 this year, with the fee increasing annually to almost $1.3 million in 2031 to account for inflation. Utah’s Legislature will contribute another $1 million in taxpayer money each year. The department’s money comes from federal taxes on bows, guns and ammunition, which are passed on to states to manage wildlife and restore habitat. This year’s SITLA fee amounts to 5 to 6 percent of this revenue, a relatively small chunk. But if the fee skyrockets, “it will mean less wildlife habitat projects will happen, and fewer acres will be improved, enhanced or conserved,” Christensen says.

SITLA’s Christy calls the deal a win-win outcome,” that benefits both the state trust beneficiaries and sportsmen and women. But for Christensen, the ever-increasing annual fee is a lingering worry. “I look at my kids and my grandkids, and I’m concerned,” he says. “Are we going to price future generations out of the opportunity to access lands?” 

Emily Benson is an editorial fellow at NewTowncarShare News.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Take over the reins of a dynamic grassroots social justice group that protects Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - Winter Wildlands Alliance seeks an experienced and highly motivated individual to lead and manage the organization as Executive Director. Visit https://winterwildlands.org/executive-director-search/ for...
  • Background: The Birds of Prey NCA Partnership is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization based in Boise, Idaho, which was established in 2015 after in-depth stakeholder input...
  • Southwest Borderlands Initiative Professor of Native Americans and the News Media The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University is...
  • AWF seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at https://azwildlife.org/jobs
  • The Southwest Communications Director will be responsible for working with field staff in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico to develop and execute detailed communication plans...
  • An intentional community designed for aging in place. Green built with Pumice-crete construction (R32), bamboo flooring, pine doors, T&G ceiling with fans, and maintenance free...
  • (CFROG) is a Ventura County, CA based watch-dog and advocacy non-profit organization. cfrog.org
  • Take your journalism skills to the next level and deepen your understanding of environmental issues by applying for the 2019-2020 Ted Scripps Fellowships in Environmental...
  • The San Juan Mountains Association is seeking a visionary leader to spearhead its public lands stewardship program in southwest Colorado. For a detailed job description...
  • The Cascade Forest Conservancy seeks a passionate ED to lead our forest protection, conservation, education, and advocacy programs.
  • Mountain Pursuit is a new, bold, innovative, western states, hunting advocacy nonprofit headquartered in Jackson, Wyoming. We need a courageous, hard working, passionate Executive Director...
  • The Draper Natural History Museum (DNHM) at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center of the West in Cody, WY, invites applications for the Willis McDonald, IV...
  • Couple seeks quiet, private, off-grid acreage in area with no/low cell phone service and no/low snowfall. Conservation/bordering public lands a plus. CA, OR, WA, ID,...
  • Former northern Sierra winery, with 2208 sq.ft. commercial building, big lot, room to expand.
  • The dZi Foundation is seeking a FT Communications Associate with a passion for Nepal to join our team in Ridgway, Colorado. Visit dzi.org/careers.
  • Available now for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojaidigital.net.
  • Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • Suitable for planting hay, hemp, fruit. Excellent water rights. 1800 square foot farmhouse, outbuildings, worker housing.