A decision on a proposal from a Utah cattleman to turn 53,000 acres of school trust land near Vernal into a private hunting club may be made in court.
The question to be resolved is the public's right to access public lands.If the Board of State Lands and Forestry grants the proposal from Greg Cunningham, the 53,000 acres would be closed to the public. Board members say they have a legal right to grant Cunningham's request. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and several sportsmen's groups maintain that such a move is illegal.
Robert J. Dale, legal counsel for the Utah Wildlife Federation, said this weekend that if the pilot project is passed by the land board, it would be an illegal act. He said a state statute reads: "There is reserved to the public the right of access to all lands owned by the state . . . for the purpose of hunting, trapping and fishing."
Supporting that law is a statute that acknowledges that all lands given to the state "are hereby accepted and declared public lands of the state." Trust lands were given to the state by the federal government at the time of statehood.
Dale said that federal statutes give the state control of the lands to manage as the legislature may provide.
"And the Legislature has already spoken on this matter," he said. "By granting access to sportsmen to all public lands, the legislature has recognized the direct benefits from sportsmen to education in terms of indirect revenue. Closure of trust lands would erode sportsmen's tax contributions to public education through decreased sales and ownership of hunting and fishing-related goods.
"The very decision the board is trying to make, the Legislature has already made. They (the land board) are trying to change the law, and they can't do that. It's illegal."
Several wildlife organizations are opposed to the Cunningham project and have complained that no public hearings have been held. The proposal was first heard on April 10 and will be decided on May 10.
A committee comprised of members from the State Land Board, Board of Big Game Control and Wildlife Board, is scheduled to meet Monday at 5 p.m. in the DWR auditorium, 1596 W. North Temple. The committee will review options that might fit into trust management and wildlife management guidelines.
If nothing is resolved Monday, the matter could wind up in court. Sportsmen's groups have already vowed to challenge the board's decision if it grants Cunningham control of the state land. Then, too, it could put the Division of Land and Forestry and the Division of Wildlife Resources in a legal battle over the rights of Utahns to use public lands for recreation and the land board's duty to generate revenue for the schools.
In a meeting last Tuesday, Douglas Bates, a land board member and legal council for the Board of State Lands and Forestry, said that trust lands should not be looked at as public lands. He said federal law gave the board, as trustees of the land, the right to act in a prudent manner to raise funds for schools.
He said the board could not look at indirect revenue, such as that spent by sportsmen and recreationists, but can only address direct revenue such as offered by Cunningham. In his proposal, Cunningham would keep 95 percent of the gross revenue generated from hunting on the land and return 5 percent to the state for the first two years. In the fifth year the state would get 10 percent.