A controversial proposal to allow a private hunting club to have exclusive access to 25,000 acres of state land in the Book Cliffs isn't dead yet. But members of the Joint Committee on Wildlife Resources have it lined up in their cross-hairs and may pull the trigger Monday when the committee meets again.
"We cannot accept it if this is your only proposal," said committee chairman Bob Valentine.Committee members sent a message that a majority does not support the idea and is concerned over the threat of closing state lands to public use. They also recognize the issue will probably be resolved in court.
The committee meeting was called to review a proposal by Greg Cunningham, a rancher and member of the Big Game Board, that 25,000 acres of state trust lands be turned over to him to start a private hunting club in the Book Cliff area south of Vernal. He owns 7,300 acres in the same area.
He also is asking that he be given 10 elk-hunting permits annually for which he would offer guided hunting trips on the land to hunters for $5,500 each. He would then return $275 back into the state school fund for each permit sold.
Sportsmen's groups around the state are opposed to the proposal. The area in question is recognized as having some of the best elk hunting in the state. They see this, too, as the first step toward turning over all state trust lands to private hunting groups.
The six members of the committee went home with instructions to come up with ideas to generate more revenue from state lands held in trust by the state. Those lands were given to the state by the federal government with a mandate that revenue from the lands benefit schools.
The simmering debate over Cunningham's request focused on the much broader issue of how the Division of State Lands can fulfill its mandate to generate revenue for the School Trust, while at the same time state lands can be kept open for hunting, fishing and other public uses.
State law says that state lands must be kept open to the public for hunting and fishing. Committee member Douglas Bates, also a member of the State Land Board, however, told the group that trust lands should not be considered public, "not as we perceive BLM or Forest Service lands."
The State Land Board has been grappling with how to generate more revenue from School Trust lands, particularly from the resources like wildlife that currently do not generate any revenue to the trust.
Proposals under consideration include charging the state a fee for wildlife grazing on trust lands, placing a surtax on hunting licenses to pay for wildlife on trust lands, looking at turning over more public lands to private hunting guides and competitive leasing of these lands.
The issue must be resolved by at least three different boards. The Land Board will May 10-11 to decide on Cunningham's proposal, while the Big Game Board will hold public hearings May 6 and will decide May 13 on the issue of the elk hunting permits Cunningham has requested.