Stewart described the roadless, hunting area as a "gem for the state and the country," and said Herbert believes SITLA could realize even more revenue if the quasi-government agency is open to trading it for proven resource-rich land.
While Christy acknowledged there had been talks with a variety of groups regarding the land, he stressed that the block of acreage was always intended for resource development.
While the land may have been on the "wish list" of multiple groups to be included as part of a land exchange Bishop has been crafting, the land in contention was steadily acquired over the years from the federal government with an eye for development, Christy said.
As part of a more comprehensive recreational land exchange already on the board, Christy said SITLA has a pending land trade with the Bureau of Land Management to add to its acreage in the Book Cliffs block in exchange for relinquishing environmentally sensitive lands along the Colorado River corridor in Grand County.
"We have never advocated the south block as a candidate for a land exchange," he said. "This is one of the biggest opportunities to come up for SITLA in decades."
SITLA's board met last week and heard details of the contract with Anadarko in a closed-door executive session. Christy said such privacy is not unusual given companies' confidential information that may be disclosed as a condition of offering the lease.
The board then resumed its meeting in public and took an open vote, he said. It was that action that multiple sportsmen's groups decry as betrayal.
"We came to the table, hat in hand, to work together," said Byron Bateman, president of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.
Both Bateman and Snyder described the region as a "mecca" for wildlife — a middle-elevation range plush with vegetation and running water. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources manages the area as a limited-entry hunt for big game, with points accumulated each year a sportsman is on the waiting list.
"It can take decades to get a permit," Snyder said, "the hunting is of such value."
Christy said hunting and fishing will be not be precluded by an exploratory development, which will be determined in part by assessments performed by helicopter.
"We are sensitive to the fact that the paradigm for the Book Cliffs has been one of pristine hunting, but we feel we can work together with all interested parties to minimize impacts," he said.
Christy said it would have been a breach of the board's fiduciary duty if it had walked away from Anadarko's proposal, which first surfaced about four months ago.
Unlike the Bureau of Land Management, SITLA manages its land not with multiple uses in mind but with the mission of generating revenue for the benefit of Utah schools.
Its 3.4 million acres are managed by a seven-member board of trustees, which oversees operations established by state law.
In 2012, a state-by-state comparison of money generated for schools by land in trust shows that Utah — second only to Mississippi — experienced skyrocketing growth in how much money it has socked away, growing 270 percent since 2001.
Interest and dividends from the fund, now valued at $1.3 billion, are returned to public secondary schools statewide, with a record-setting $29 million being distributed to school community councils in 2012.
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