Emily Benson Nov. 27, 2017

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.

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. Read More

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