Book Cliffs leasing blindsides sportsmen, threatens to derail protection efforts
Sportsmen expressed dismay Monday after learning that the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands (SITLA) Board secretly voted to lease a large portion of the Book Cliffs, a prized hunting and fishing area in eastern Utah, for oil and gas development last week.
The Book Cliffs is a critical area for conservation in the state of Utah. The announcement threatens to derail a broad collaborative effort led by Congressman Rob Bishop to find solutions on wilderness issues in Utah, a process sportsmen have supported.
Without signaling its intentions to Congressman Bishop, Governor Herbert's office, or any other participant in that process, SITLA agreed to lease more than 80,000 acres of the Book Cliffs to a petroleum company, Anadarko.
"This was a blindside hit," said Bill Christensen, Regional Director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. "Everyone in this process knew that we couldn't get a deal without something in it for sportsmen, and that the Book Cliffs represent a critical area for Utah's big game herds and a remarkable place to hunt and fish. We'd been discussing the area as part of a land exchange for a long time. 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."
SITLA's actions came as a particularly unpleasant surprise to the sportsmen, environmental groups, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, congressional staff, and representatives of the Governor's office who--along with SITLA--converged on the Book Cliffs just a few weeks ago to highlight the significance of the area as part of a potential land exchange that would secure its exceptional wildlife values .
"We spent three days on horseback in that country observing the amazing variety wildlife--everything from bears to bison," said Ken Theis, Utah Coordinator for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. "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. But this makes us wonder whether SITLA ever intended to consider exchanging this remarkable tract for other parcels with known energy deposits but lesser wildlife values."
This excursion was one of many field trips held the first part of August in eastern Utah as part of a broader public lands initiative lead by Congressmen Rob Bishop, Chris Stewart, Jason Chaffetz and Utah Governor Gary Herbert. The present effort seeks to end years of fighting over public lands through a more collaborative, grassroots process that better balances the needs for natural resource development, on the one hand, and conservation, on the other.
"We came to the table hat in hand wanting to work together," Byron Bateman, President of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. "Sportsmen have always been fair dealers in this realm. We recognize the need for energy and we understand that these needs should be balanced with the needs of fish, wildlife, conservation and other uses in the state of Utah. Backroom deals done in secret, particularly while all of us are trying to work through an open process negates the work of our elected officials as well as undercuts funding for our children."
The Book Cliffs boasts some of the highest-quality big game habitat in the West along with Willow Creek, a Blue-Ribbon trout stream. Every year, some of Utah's biggest mule deer bucks and bull elk come from this remote and wild country. Many hunters wait years, if not decades, for a chance to hunt there--and not just for a chance at a trophy, but for the uniqueness of the experience.
"To be clear, our issue is not with Anadarko," says Casey Snider, Utah Coordinator for Trout Unlimited. "Our issue is with SITLA which seems to have little regard for Sportsmen as well as for transparency. We recognize the need for energy and we understand that to get it, we're going to have to identify areas to drill. But there are places where drilling makes little sense when balanced against other resource values, and the heart of the Book Cliffs is one of them."
"Fortunately Anadarko seems to understand that," continued Snider. "They've stepped up and indicated a willingness to work with sportsmen to find an amenable solution. We applaud that commitment, as this process can only succeed with that kind of open and honest dialog on the part of all participants. The time for backroom deals and political sleight of hands is over. We feel there is room for a win-win opportunity if we continue to work through the process. We owe it to the people of this State to protect the Book Cliffs while finding areas which are more suitable for energy development.