A plan to lease thousands of acres of school trust lands in Eastern Utah for oil and gas exploration is on hold after news of the arrangement upset various interest groups who say they were kept in the dark. Now, the question is whether the Legislature should formally review how the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration operates, and whether it is as effective as it could be in raising money for schools.
Such a review should indeed take place, if for no other reason than to make sure that SITLA operates with more transparency than exhibited in the forestalled lease arrangements in the area of the Book Cliffs.
It wouldn't be the first time concerns over how the agency manages millions of acres of public lands has prompted a call for a review. SITLA itself was created two decades ago because of worries that oversight of the lands — then by the state Department of Natural Resources — was not conducive to maximizing their value. There was evidence that administrative mechanisms at the time were vulnerable to political meddling and cronyism that worked to milk value out of the lands to the benefit of parties other than the state's education system.
Twelve years later, the Legislature ordered SITLA to undergo a performance audit, again out of concern over whether the agency was upholding its duty to the school trust. That 2006 audit was critical of SITLA on a number of fronts, including its tendency to operate in a cocoon, contrary to kind of public openness appropriate to its mission. Auditors complained that SITLA's land development and leasing operations lacked "acceptable levels of control for a public trust."
This latest dust-up – over the leases in the Book Cliffs — is a horse of the same color.
Perhaps energy exploration is the best use for the lands in question. Certainly, Utah lands contain many rich, untapped natural resources. Objections to such uses do not have to stifle those plans, but they do need to be considered when public lands are involved. SITLA apparently did not reach out to various stakeholders for input before agreeing to lease lands to an energy company — without competitive bidding — in an area apparently cherished by hunters and preservationists who suffered angst over the agreement and the way it came to pass. Their complaints prompted Gov. Gary Herbert to negotiate a postponement of execution of the leases.
Historically, the state's supervision of the lands set aside upon statehood to benefit public education has been less than a success story. By 1994, when SITLA was created, about half of the 7 million-plus acres had already been disposed of, and the revenue from the disposal was woefully small. The trust fund fed by sales and leasing of the lands has grown exponentially since then, but among the states that similarly manage trust lands, Utah delivers a disproportionately small amount of annual revenue to schools. Disbursements account for only about 1 percent of all state school expenditures.
SITLA believes it works diligently to maximize value of the acreage under its supervision, but the Book Cliffs incident suggests the agency's operations should be subject to greater public accountability. SITLA was created to be independent from political influence, but not so independent as to operate without proper governance or transparency.