Syndee Chapman Gonzalez

(Utah News Dispatch) Hunting interests could take precedence over the interests of Utah students and private parties like the Ute Indian Tribe, say critics.

HB262 gives the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) preferential treatment during the sale of large blocks of land that is supposed to be managed to maximize revenue for Utah public education — and, in some cases, land that is part of the Ute Tribe’s ancestral homelands.

The bill creates a new process for large land sales, specifically those over 5,000 acres. In these cases, SITLA could forgo advertising the proposed sale and choose to sell to DNR for fair market value rather than to the highest bidder.

If passed, the bill could cut out potential private buyers, such as the Ute Tribe, who are willing to pay more for the land than state agencies.

Critics say this would result in less revenue for Utah schools since the state wouldn’t have to compete to match higher bids. However, SITLA argues the bill would have an extremely narrow impact due to the rarity of such large sales. The agency said it has only made one sale of that magnitude in its history.

The Ute Tribe has sued the state over the type of sale outlined in the bill, and the tribe says giving preference to state entities in these sales to preserve public access for hunting and fishing is simply an excuse not to sell them the land.

Understanding trust lands

Like most western states, Utah was given trust lands by the federal government when it became a state. The lands were designated to support public institutions, namely public schools and universities.

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, often referred to by its acronym SITLA, manages the lands entrusted to it by using the revenue from sales and leases to grow permanent endowments.

Current state law says SITLA must show “undivided loyalty” to managing the trust lands to benefit the schools and other beneficiaries of the trust rather than to benefit other government agencies, the public or the general welfare of the state.

HB262, however, appears to contradict the purpose of trust lands and SITLA’s mandate.

“It’s a conflict of interest for the trust because the mandate of any trust is to maximize the investment,” said Tyler “TK” Slack, who finished two consecutive four-year terms in 2022 as a parent representative on the Trust Land Advisory Committee, which advises the State Board of Education on the trust.

“This goes against trust principles. They’re limiting their opportunity for maximizing how much they can get out of it by narrowing it down to the Utah Department of Natural Resources and fair market value.“

SITLA spokesperson Marla Kennedy stressed that the sale process outlined in the bill is optional rather than mandatory.

“HB262 addresses the legislative policy goals for securing public access to certain large land blocks and offers a new option for the Trust to profit from large land block sales,” she said. “Many people ask why the state has to buy land from itself. The reason is that trust lands are held for the financial support of education and other institutions rather than the public at large. … Successful large land sales are a way of generating significant new revenue for our beneficiaries.”

She added that the bill includes important provisions that SITLA supports, and that it addresses concerns that arose during the sale of the Trust Lands Cinnamon Creek block. Kennedy declined to expand on what those concerns were, saying they came from the Legislature, not SITLA.

The 8,000-acre Cinnamon Creek block was leased to the DNR’s Division of Wildlife Resources for fishing and hunting before the division won an auction sale for the land in 2021. The $20 million sale was one of the administration’s largest ever, and Kennedy said it involved a hurried effort by the state to gather sufficient funding for the purchase. That funding came from a number of conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Utah Legislature. HB262 sponsor, Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, led the legislative efforts to fund the purchase.

Slack — whose position on the Trust Land Advisory Committee was part of his work with the Utah PTA, a nonprofit grassroots child advocacy association — said the bill reflects a long history of backroom dealing when it comes to trust lands.

“There was this issue where land was being sold for pennies on the dollar. It was handshake deals, it wasn’t being managed properly. The PTA got involved and brought awareness and that’s why SITLA exists now, in part, because that awareness was brought forward,” he said. “This (bill) just goes back to handshake deals, it’s just more sophisticated under the guise of ‘We’re doing this legally.’ But this is not OK.”

Since SITLA’s creation in 1994, the trust funds have grown substantially. Slack fears HB262 would undo much of the progress, which he credits in large part to the separation and independence the agency aims to offer.

Competing interests

The type of sale outlined in the bill mirrors SITLA’s attempts to sell a 28,500-acre block of land named Tabby Mountain.

The land’s wildlife habitat has been a big draw for hunters, and DNR hoped to add Tabby Mountain to a nearby wildlife management area to provide public access for hunting.

For the Ute Indian Tribe — whose reservation boundaries lie nearby — the land holds cultural, religious and spiritual value. The mountain itself draws its name from Ute Chief Tabby-To-Kwanah.

Those competing interests came to a head in 2018 when SITLA put Tabby Mountain up for sale. Although DNR’s bid matched the property’s appraised market value, it was still $6 million lower than the tribe’s bid.

SITLA was legally required to either sell to the highest bidder or demand a higher bid from the DNR. The department submitted a higher bid, but SITLA ultimately suspended the sale.

A whistleblower complaint and subsequent lawsuit from the tribe claim that SITLA violated its trust and fiduciary duties and conspired with DNR to prevent the tribe from purchasing the land.

That lawsuit is still working its way through the courts, and the state agencies named in the lawsuit have countered the tribe’s claims of racial discrimination and moved to dismiss the suit. SITLA clarified that Tabby Mountain could still be sold under existing sale and leasing practices regardless of whether the bill passes.   

The bill’s sponsor, Snider, did not respond to requests for comment. He introduced similar legislation in 2022 that did not make it out of committee and faced opposition from education organizations.

Snider’s website describes him as “an avid sportsman” who “spend(s) as much time in the field as possible chasing waterfowl, big game, and upland birds.” He is also a member of the Utah Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus, whose factsheet highlights its “collaborative relationship with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.”

DNR said it is supportive of keeping state lands within state ownership and management to ensure access to the public for a variety of different uses, including outdoor recreation and grazing.

“HB262 will help ensure better public access to state lands for future generations to enjoy,” the department said in a statement.

Slack added that large blocks of land currently in SITLA’s care — such as Tabby Mountain and Book Cliffs, another large trust-land block near the Uintah and Ouray Reservation — were acquired using school trust selection rights to benefit wildlife and hunting. He said that and the fact that the lands haven’t been monetized for decades is both wrong and a breach of trust.

“For 60 years, the story with Tabby Mountain and the Book Cliffs has been no money for schools, and the land has been used for hunting primarily that the state gets big time money from,” Slack said. “It’s a big moneymaker, but it’s not for the school children who this land was meant to benefit; it’s going to the Department of Natural Resources, so they want to keep it for that.”

In 2017, SITLA and DNR agreed to a deal that gives hunters access to state trust lands in exchange for $1.8 million annually. The agreement runs through 2032, with the Utah State Legislature committing $1 million per year of ongoing general funds to supplement DNR’s payments, according to a press release.

The department’s Division of Wildlife Resources’ main revenue source is hunting and fishing license and permit sales, with the division reporting bringing in $37.5 million from such sales last year — much more than the amount SITLA receives.

“They say it’s for hunting, but it’s a limited entry because it’s not like everybody can go up there. So they can’t use that as an excuse,” Ute Tribe Chairman Julius T. Murray III said. “The state of Utah has mismanaged wildlife for years. They over-allocate tags, they don’t do anything to give back to the land. It’s all for profit right now; it’s not for the wildlife or the hunters.”

“They didn’t say anything about several other portions up there that were sold to private interests, that they had no problem selling to private ownerships, and Utah residents can’t go in there and hunt,” he continued. “What’s the difference if the tribe bought it?”

The Ute Indian Tribe announced last week it would ban anyone who is not a member of the tribe from hunting, fishing or recreating on its lands. The decision comes in response to individuals who have exploited tribal permits and disregarded tribal rules, according to a press release. 

“Nonmember hunting and fishing on our lands is a privilege, not a right,” Murray said in the release. “As long as there are individuals who disrespect tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty and treat our homeland as a place of lawlessness, then we have no choice but to draw a hard line on all nonmember permits.”

Murray said the bill wasn’t surprising and that the tribe is looking at other avenues to acquire Tabby Mountain while the lawsuit plays out in court.

Tabby Mountain was originally included in the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 restored the mineral rights to the tribe. Murrary said that why the surface lands weren’t also restored to the tribe is a question both the tribe and the federal government are currently looking into. The land was National Forest land until SITLA acquired it in a land swap in the ’70s.

“Whenever the state gets caught in a gotcha moment, they always gotta move the line to benefit themselves,” he said. “Legally you can’t change a rule once litigation has started to benefit yourself, or technically (you can’t), right? So we’ll see where it goes and then we’ll have to adapt to whatever the outcome is.”

This story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with Utah News Dispatch.

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