SALT LAKE CITY — Juggling the interests wrapped up in a controversial oil and gas development lease of the Book Cliffs is in its next stage with the adoption of a charter that lays out creation of a new advisory committee.
The seven-member body will have two representatives from sportsmen's groups, two from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and three others who represent the state's energy interests as well as school children who will benefit from development revenue.
"We tried to put it strongly weighted in the direction of wildlife interests," said Kim Christy, deputy director of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA. "Creation of this advisory committee is something we put forward in good faith. We believe it adds good utility to this process and will add to the overall success of the project."
The board will help balance the interests involved in Anadarko's lease of 47,000 acres in specific blocks of the southern portion of the Book Cliffs, which is home to prized mule deer and elk populations, as well as an aggressive recovery effort of Bonneville cutthroat trout.
In August, the lease involving 96,000 acres signed between the petroleum company and SITLA caused an uproar among sportsmen's groups and led to public backlash from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and state wildlife officials who urged that the contract be renegotiated.
At the same time, SITLA said it had a fiduciary duty to its beneficiaries — the schoolchildren of Utah — with the fund it manages as a trust slated to receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the deal.
While SITLA lands are not public lands but rather lands held in trust with a stated purpose for development of revenue, the deal still raised the ire of sportsmen's groups and others who value the remote and rugged Book Cliffs and asserted that other areas were more suited for energy development.
Critics, too, feared the lease would upend potential land trades being negotiated at the congressional and state levels to set aside high conservation-value land, such as the southern Book Cliffs, in exchange for acreage they said could yield even greater revenue from oil and gas development.
Ultimately, the board entered into an amended contract with Anadarko, which agreed to delay exploratory oil and gas activity in the 29,000-acre One Eye area for one year and the Bogart Canyon area of 18,000 acres for two years. The remaining acreage in the north can proceed with exploratory activity without delay.
Christy said the delays in the amended agreement fell in line with the company's plans to begin at the northern section of the Book Cliffs and work southward with its exploration. At the same, the delays preserve the ability for land trades to be pursued absent the fear the land or habitat are compromised, he said.
The board of trustees' vote Thursday to adopt a charter represents the first time SITLA has had an advisory committee that will weigh in on a specific resource development's impacts to habitat and wildlife, Christy added.
Specifically, the charter establishes that advisory committee meetings will be held six months prior to any surface disturbance from Anadarko, with company representatives informing the committee of activities such as seismic drilling and road construction and whether they would have an impact on fawning and calving.
Christy said he anticipates the committee will also make use of the expertise of wildlife biologists to shape its recommendations, as well as the knowledge of those familiar with the Book Cliffs.
"There is a strong sense of trying to keep some allegiance to the local understandings of this property," he said. ”With input from wildlife biologists and hunting groups, along with Anadarko’s strong reputation for stewardship, we believe this project will be a win-win for everyone.”
State wildlife officials and a sportsmen's group reacted with praise.
"We are pleased to be involved in SITLA's new Book Cliffs advisory committee and will represent wildlife issues as they relate to the future development of this area," said Mike Fowlks, deputy director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "Hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers value this unique area of Utah for its diverse species and recreational opportunities. We, too, believe this can be a win-win for everyone."
Casey Snyder, Utah coordinator for Trout Unlimited, said the organization was "extremely happy" with the charter and other recent developments.
"Our hats are off to SITLA for putting this together," he said. "This is the way we like to work — in a collaborative, consensus-based way that works for energy production and wildlife."
Committee members will hold their first meeting by the end of January.
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