Lots for Tots 

How one agency is selling off Utah in the name of the children

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Book Cliffs for Books
When SITLA officials announced in August 2013 the deal to lease Bogart Canyon, they crossed a new line. Where opposition to SITLA’s land-use policies had traditionally come from environmental groups like SUWA, they now had hunters and fisherman on their backs. And not long afterward, Gov. Gary Herbert jumped on the heap, forcing SITLA to put on the brakes.

SITLA did so reluctantly, placing a two-year pause on the deal, time that allowed them to form a committee with two seats reserved for representatives of wildlife groups. This committee will study mitigation measures for the project in the hopes that all sides can leave happy.

In the meantime, a so-called “grand bargain,” proposed by 1st District Congressman Rob Bishop, aims to sooth land disputes across the state between conservation groups, developers and other interests. Some want this deal to include Bogart Canyon.

But for SITLA, which has spent decades building up blue squares around Bogart Canyon, inclusion of this area in a land swap could cost schoolchildren hundreds of millions of dollars.

“This block was ultimately created over multiple land exchanges over time with an eye toward mineral development,” Christy says. “[For] us to walk away from this opportunity is going to be a challenge to our beneficiaries, our board, etc.”

That SITLA would bow to the governor and the interests of hunters was rare. Christy called it the “test of our time”; for him, it represents the type of meddling in SITLA’s dealings that the agency has always attempted to avoid, what Christy called “trying to be everything to everyone.” Putting projects on hold, asking permission, conducting sensitive meetings like the one with Anadarko in public—all of that would stunt SITLA’s progress and, Christy says, threaten to send the agency back into its old corrupt ways.

“We are not in a position of ‘Mother may I’ to the general public, and if that were the case, we would quickly fall back into the ’94 model,” he says, referring to management of trust lands prior to the formation of SITLA.

Bird seems confident that Anadarko will eventually develop Bogart Canyon, and when it does, she senses that SITLA’s contribution to the state’s education budget could become far more substantial than 1 percent. “[If] they hit the kind of oil we hope they’ll hit out in the Book Cliffs, I do see a day that it’s an ever-increasing funding source, doing really significant things for schools,” she says.

Tabby Mountain Auction Block
Not more than a two-hour drive from Salt Lake City is Tabby Mountain, 25,000 acres of rugged mountains blocked out in solid SITLA blue on state land maps.

Hunters and outdoor enthusiasts treasure this area as they do Bogart Canyon. They treasure it so much, in fact, that in 2006, the DNR offered to pay SITLA $40 million for the land.

Styler, the executive director of the department, remembers that no actual negotiations between his department and the SITLA board ever took place. He says that while SITLA staff seemed interested in working out a deal, one person in particular didn’t: Margaret Bird.

“The beneficiaries, represented by Ms. Bird, had some inflated idea of the value and they said, ‘We’re better off just keeping it for the future, and let it appreciate,’ ” Styler says.

Bird remembers Tabby Mountain. She says SITLA will always entertain land purchases, so long as they’re at fair market value. And in this case, she says, SITLA decided $40 million was too low.

She says that SITLA did studies to determine if such a large chunk of land existed anywhere else near a large urban area. It did not, she says, making Tabby Mountain a prime spot for lodges and cabins.

“Twenty-five-thousand acres within an hour and 15 minutes of a metro area bigger than a million people?” she says. “I think it’d be valuable for all sorts of things. I’ve always thought something like an Old Faithful Lodge.”

Bird is looking forward to when the state widens Highway 40, which has been the main artery connecting thousands of oil trucks to the Salt Lake Valley since the oil boom began in the Uintah Basin. Highway 40 is how you access Tabby Mountain.

“I think we haven’t begun to see the real value that that property’s going to have,” she says. “When they improve the road out to the basin. … All of those things will make it increase in value.”

Winds of Change


There’s no shortage of folks who feel SITLA’s actions aren’t in the long-term best interests of schoolchildren. But tell that to the schoolchildren who get new books, microscopes and teacher’s aides every year with the money SITLA provides.

Few can illustrate this conflict better than Heather Bennett, vice president of the Salt Lake City School Board of Education and an organizer of the group For Kids & Lands. She says the issues surrounding SITLA will never be cut and dried because the money it provides is “very important to schools.”

Bennett says SITLA might need to have its mandate altered so it can consider other things besides dollars, but something also needs to prop up education funding—and soon.

“I think the lesson about SITLA is that I don’t know that you can give land-use policy to a group, no matter how independent, with only a single mission, and expect that the results are going to be the best results that can be produced,” she says.

Despite the flap over the Bogart Canyon lease, SITLA appears to have quelled the concerns of Herbert.

In a prepared statement to City Weekly, Herbert said he supports SITLA’s mission and doesn’t believe any legislation is necessary to shake it up.

On Jan. 27, SITLA kicked off 2014 with a land-lease auction. Among the tens of thousands of acres up for grabs were 718 acres for tar sands, 944 acres for oil-shale mining and 9,274 acres for frac sand mining, which strips silica from underground sand that is later used in other hydraulic fracturing operations. The minimum bid for the oil-shale lease, which was in Uintah County, was $500,000.

The long-term health and environmental impacts of this auction and those to come might not be felt for years, or even decades. One thing, though, is certain: a portion of the proceeds will end up in the hands of Utah’s schoolchildren.

But the “ravaging of our land, air and water is truly a diminishment to our children’s future,” the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance’s Markham says. “If you don’t have a healthy child, what good is education?”

SITLA Land: Utah’s “Blue Rash”

At its simplest, Utah is a bunch of six-mile-by-six-mile squares. Each of these is known as a township. Within a township are more squares—36 of them. In the 1894 Enabling Act, which made it possible for Utah to join the union, the federal government granted four parcels in each township “for the support of common schools.” These parcels were numbers 2, 16, 32 and 36. On the checkerboard-like overlay showing townships on a map of Utah, those parcels are colored baby blue—some people call it the “blue rash.”

Because Mormons had been busy settling the state since their arrival in 1847, much of this designated school land had already been spoken for. For instance, the maps show that the corner of South Temple and State Street, plot No. 36, would have belonged to the schools. In exchange for the land that had already been taken, the state was allowed to block up bunches of squares inside other townships for schools. As a result, some townships are all blue.

For the first 98 years of its existence, this land—7 million acres in total—was managed by the Division of State Lands & Forestry. But by the early 1990s, the permanent school fund held a mere $15 million and half of the land granted at statehood had been sold.

Following a spate of bad publicity surrounding a below market value sell-off of 2,500 acres of valuable land in Washington County in the 1980s, the state legislature created SITLA, prodded in part by Margaret Bird, who had been studying the plight of trust lands and become a local authority.

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