Earlier this week, the State Land Board, caretakers of the state's trust lands for schools, entertained the notion of going into the trophy hunting business.
Greg Cunningham, cattle rancher and sometimes member of the Board of Big Game Control, made an offer: Give him all the land and animals, and he'llsupply the hunters, for a 95-5 split . . . and guess who gets the 5.
Strange thing is, board members seemed interested in the deal. It's dollars for the schools. Not many, admittedly, but more than they're getting now, and everyone knows schools need it.
The proposal seems simple enough: Cunningham wants sovereign control over 53,000 acres of state property now controlled by the board to go along with his 7,300 neighboring acres. He also wants the state to give him all the trophy elk, deer, bear, cougar, picnic and camping rights, and all other animals and grasses that might blunder onto or grow on his new range.
He would supply the hunters, mostly out-of-staters because they're the ones with big money, a cook and directions to the nearest trophy. For this he would charge a handsome buck ($5,500 for an elk hunt) and happily share the gains ($275 to the schools, $5,225 to Cunningham). Sound fair?
It's no joke. The tone of the board meeting on Tuesday was to make it happen and soon so Cunningham could bring in his troops this fall and the money will be deposited by Christmas.
The land Cunningham wants is called Went Ridge and is in the roadless region of the Book Cliffs. It is to the south of Vernal, borders the Ute Indian Reservation and is some of the choicest elk hunting country in the state. It also holds a fair number of deer, cougar and bear.
Hunters consider it one of Utah's best areas. There are veterans who have annually applied to hunt elk there and never drawn out. Now Cunningham wants a guaranteed 10 permits a year . . . and the land, and the animals, and 95 percent of the money.
All but Cunningham's guests would, of course, have to be barred from the land, year-round, he asked, so as not to scare the animals off his new hunting preserve. State lands would therefore have to be posted "Private. No Trespassing."
This is, according to one source, the beginning of what may be many such state-leased/private hunting preserves, officially named Cooperative Resource Management Programs.
The schools won't make much off the deal. Cunningham, however, could make a killing. The sportsmen, who supplied and paid for the animals, get nothing. No, that's not quite right. To appease sportsmen, Cunningham will be willing to let two hunters a year on his land and waive the fees.
The obvious question to the board is why give away the car and keep the keys?
That land is some of the most prized in the state, and the game, particularly the elk, some of the largest. Shoot for a 50/50 split, at least, for hunting rights. Then if he wants the animals, sell them like cattle, but not to make a profit. Let him buy them at current replacement cost . . . $1,000 a head for elk, $500 each for deer, bear and cougar. Terms available.
Better yet, give him land where there is no game or hunting at present and let him build it up. Let him buy his own elk, deer, cougars and bear, and then raise them for his clients. If Cunningham wants to get into the hunting business, let him start as most businesses do - from the ground up, not right at the very top.
If this goes through, there will of course be a bitter battle. Sportsmen, especially those in the Vernal area, are adamantly opposed to the deal. If Cunningham wants to make a private hunting preserve on his own lands, let him. Nothing wrong with it. But to turn over state lands and state animals so one man can make big bucks, at the expense of Utah sportsmen, is ludicrous.
Even more ludicrous is the fact that Cunningham has kept his seat on the Board of Big Game Control, overseers of Utah's big game animals, issuers of the very hunting permits he will be asking for. He says that when the request comes before the board, he won't vote . . . like entering a contest and then sitting on the judges' panel. No influence there, right?
The big question is whether this is all legal or not. State law says state lands must be always open for hunting and fishing. If this can be skirted, at least open the surface rights for hunting to public bid. Don't just give them away. And, if Cunningham wants to bid then let him, but let him make his presentation from the audience, not from his seat on the Big Game Board.