SALT LAKE CITY — The State Board of Education on Friday unanimously said thanks but no thanks to pressure from the governor and a congressman to exert its influence over a controversial oil and gas lease to land in the Book Cliffs.
The board voted 15-0 to support the decision by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to enter into a lease with Anadarko on 96,000 acres of SITLA land in the Books Cliffs for five years.
"This is good news, and what the (SITLA) board of trustees did was definitely in the best interest of the beneficiaries of the trust," said Tim Donaldson, the School Children's Trust director.
The Friday vote came despite a written plea by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, that was sent to board members Thursday, describing the flaws in the decision because of the wildlife value of the southern portion of land.
"Inclusion of this small area in the SITLA lease complicates our larger planning effort and could jeopardize the possibility of exchanging one of the effort's crown jewels for developable land that is potentially even more beneficial for Utah's schools," the letter stated.
Bishop has been championing a collaborate lands-trade effort called the "Grand Bargain," in which diverse interests such as sportsmen's groups, environmentalists, rural county commissions and the oil and gas industry can come to an agreement on what lands in Utah should be preserved and what lands are candidates for resource extraction.
"Leasing the southern portion of the Books Cliffs could very seriously jeopardize the broader lands consolidation effort, as well as an optimal return for Utah's schoolchildren," the letter said.
But the school board resisted any attempt by the governor or Bishop to interfere with a decision that has already been inked — a refusal bolstered by a showing of support by some Utah lawmakers.
"As a hunter who knows the Book Cliffs, I think this issue has become very overblown by the governor's office," said Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan, in his statement to the board. "It is not the place of the governor's office, the governor's energy adviser or even a congressmen to tell the SITLA board what land they can keep and what land they can give away, or to tell them where they can and can't drill for oil. These are not state lands. These are school trust lands."
Cunningham, who said he is a longtime member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and hails from eastern Utah, stressed the trust is a "trust" and fiduciary law always applies.
"No exceptions. A trust doesn't function properly if anyone — even longtime friends and supporters of the trust — is allowed to say, 'Just this one time, make an exception,'" he said.
Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, had a statement read at the meeting because he could not be there personally.
Brown ran the legislation that created SITLA as a quasi-public agency out of reach of lawmakers and the executive branch, and he stressed there is a reason to keep it at arm's length.
"We had a century of the Utah school trust being managed by executive branch officials. What did we have to show for it? Almost nothing," he said in the statement.
In the nearly 20 years the trust has operated in quasi-independence, Brown said the balance of the Permanent School Trust Fund and distributions to local schools combine to equal nearly $2 billion.
"I think it has worked pretty well," he said, "and everyone needs to let it keep working."