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Hunters, fishers angry after precious piece of Book Cliffs leased to petroleum company

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The Book Cliffs is a mountainous landscape inhabited by wildlife, but a precious piece of the area has been leased for oil and gas development.

Hunters and fishers said SITLA, the state agency entrusted with making that decision, blindsided them. They're hoping Gov. Gary Herbert hears their message and helps put a stop to the oil and gas lease.

Two organizations, Trout Unlimited and The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, are talking publicly about what they call a secret vote to approve a lease to a petroleum company. The state agency accused of misleading sportsmen is defending itself, saying everyone involved in the project was aware of the lease all along.

Casey Snider is the Utah coordinator for Trout Unlimited. He said Willow Creek is one of the best fisheries in the state, and now it's being threatened.

"We had absolutely no idea, and really the only time we found out about it is after the vote had already occurred,” he said. “We got word from SITLA that it had been leased, and that's just the way it was."

SITLA is the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands. The board made a decision last Friday to award an oil and gas lease to Anadarko. If the deal is sealed, the petroleum company, headquartered in Texas, will be able to drill on 80,000 acres.

"The part of the Book Cliffs that we're concerned about now is road-less," said Bill Christensen, who is the regional director of Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

He said members from SITLA and the governor's office took a tour through the Book Cliffs but claims he had no idea the road-less area was being considered for oil and gas development.

"Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is not opposed to wise development of oil and gas, we never have been, but what we are concerned about is areas like that,” he said.

In a statement released to FOX 13 News, the deputy director for the Trust Lands Administration said in part, "We fully intend to work proactively with them and Anadarko to minimize impacts from this opportunity, which could mean tens to hundreds of millions of dollars for Utah's schoolchildren."

Christensen said his organization was not made aware of the decision until after the deal was penned.

Snider said: "My understanding is the ink is not dry on this agreement. That's why we've come out publicly at this point."

Both organizations said the petroleum company is not the problem, and that even Anadarko was surprised to hear about the lease being an issue, specifically the road-less area which is about 20,000 acres of the 80,000 acres leased. Gov. Herbert had no comment, but a spokesperson said the issue is under review.