Development projects may soon mar the Utah's Book Cliffs Roadless Area, which is prime wildlife habitat. Mineral extraction could also be in the offing for spectacular Dead Horse Point State Park.
The Utah State Division of Lands and Forestry - backed by a new attorney general's opinion - is moving to permit both. The opinion not only allows this kind of development, but it holds that environmental protection takes second place to moneymaking on the state's 3.6 million acres of school land.Under the 14-page informal opinion, managers of the state school sections are helpless to protect scenery, wildlife, archaeological sites or any other value when protection would reduce the land's moneymaking potential.
Gov. Norm Bangerter's chief of staff, Bud Scruggs, is so concerned about the ruling that he says the governor may have to take action to protect some areas. Environmentalists say the opinion ties the hands of officials wanting to protect the land.
Scruggs said state officials need to know that if they're going to pursue short-sighted efforts to maximize revenue from trust lands, there will be times "we're going to oppose them."
For example, when a proposal was made to create a private hunting preserve on state land, which would have generated $20,000 a year in revenue to the state, "we were willing to go to court over that," he said.
"This mandate gives them a veto power over environmentally sound management practices. It's a fairly grim situation," said Scott Groene, a lawyer with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
The new legal interpretation is part of an informal opinion by the Utah Attorney General's Office, delivered last week.
Revenue from grazing, mining leases, oil and gas royalties and other projects on state trust land goes into a fund to help public schools. The fund takes priority over any other action that would conflict with it, according to the opinion.
That's true even when protection may otherwise be in the public's best interest.
"Trust resources, even those with marginal revenue potential, may not be administered to benefit public purposes for which there is no compensation to the trust and where the trust resource may be depleted," says the opinion, written by Assistant Attorneys General John S. McAllister and David S. Christensen. "The interest of the school and institutional trust beneficiary is paramount and must always prevail over any conflicting public use or purpose."
Zoning can't be used to protect non-economic values of the state land if that would conflict with development.
"Zoning power must be used within legal authority and to depress the value of trust lands for the benefit of other public or private interests would be contrary to law."
The informal opinion was written in reply to four specific questions asked by James R. Moss, state superintendent of public instruction.
Utah's trust land was once the property of the federal government. It was awarded to Utah at statehood, with the stated intention of making money for the schools.
This intention is spelled out in the Enabling Act, voted by Congress to let Utah into the union as a state, and in the state's constitution. It is also incorporated in laws and previous opinions.
In the past, administrators have taken action to protect non-revenue value of land. For years a 48,000-acre roadless tract of the Book Cliffs has been set aside from development as a wildlife preserve.
However, now state officials are moving to open the Book Cliffs tract for development.
Also to be opened are mineral rights to 210 acres within southern Utah's Dead Horse Point State Park, a 640-acre site once earmarked for a reservoir that was never developed in Washington County, and 12,000 acres of the Henry Mountain Coal Field that were withdrawn because the federal government thought developing the field was unsuitable.
Asked when these areas may be available for development, Karl Kappe of the Utah Division of State Lands and Forestry said, "Barring positive action to reinstate or continue the withdrawal . . . (that) would likely happen sometime late this summer or early fall."
The state was interested in exchanging the Henry Mountains property with the federal government. Such an exchange may still be possible, he said.