Sugar Knoll, an iconic sandstone formation just east of Mount Carmel and a sweet spot for many in the surrounding communities for recreation activities, may become less accessible or cutoff completely if a pending auction by the state goes through, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of many.

The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) plans to auction off 503 acres of trust lands in the area accessed only by permission across strips of private land, which could result in limited or no access by the new owner.

The auction, to be held Oct. 24, at the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City, goes on the block with a minimum asking price of $2.515 million. It will be the second auction this year of state lands expected to benefit Utah’s school children by $70 million.

While education will benefit, some members of Kane County communities are anxious that the pristine area they have enjoyed for generations could come to an end.

While the land can currently  be enjoyed by the public, access to the land entails traveling on a road across a section of private land requiring permission from the owner and a key to a locked gate.

Kim Christy, deputy director of SITLA, said his office is just carrying out its mandate of monetizing state trust lands to benefit schools by maximizing their values through sales and leases with the proceeds going into a permanent account managed by the separate School and Institutional Trust Fund Office (SITFO). Interest and dividends from the fund are divvied out to schools based on need.

Christy said market forces do not necessarily drive SITLA’s decisions concerning the trust lands, which the federal government gave to Utah at statehood in 1896. He said since then, about half of the seven million acres awarded the state have been sold. To conserve and better manage the dwindling acreage, in 1994, the state Legislature took the lands away from management by the Department of Natural Resources, which was producing languid returns, and created SITLA. The quasi-public office has managed the lands like a business since then, and seen the fund swell from millions of dollars to a robust $2.4 billion.

The money distributed to school districts across the state is spent on recommendations of community councils that best know the needs of their particular schools. Funds can go to anything from math labs to computers to tutors. Christy said Utah’s formula works so well, it has been emulated by other school districts around the country. But not all are pleased by SITLA’s latest proposed auction

Mount Carmel resident Susan Bingham said the buyer of the land could deny public access, closing off a bucolic area of caves, slot canyons and sandstone formations that for decades have been an oasis for recreation for area residents.

“We’re not against education,” Bingham said. “But this just is not right for a lot of people.”

To allow people a chance to express their concerns, Bingham, co-owner of Bingham Gallery in Mount Carmel, held a public meeting at the gallery on Sept. 6, attended by more than 50 people. She said most are upset about the lack of transparency associated with the sale.

They want to know whom first petitioned SITLA about the sale, and what a new owner plans to do with the property that over the years has been the subject of painter Maynard Dixon and photographer Ansel Adams.

“They have done this in a tricky way,” Bingham said. “This is not sitting well with people. [SITLA]  should have been more forthcoming. We don’t like the way they do business.” She added that many thought the auction property was part of the surrounding BLM lands.

She said it is hoped maybe the land could be purchased and preserved by a conservation group.

“We’re not environmentalists,” Bingham said. “This is not a political issue, it’s an issue of right and wrong.”

Ron Torgerson, a resource specialist and deputy director of SITLA, met with the meeting’s participants, whom he described as feeling passionate about the property they have always enjoyed, but the bottom line is SITLA is just carrying out its mandate.

“It was a good meeting,” Torgerson said. “They were well educated and concerned about what was going to happen to a scenic and beloved area in their back yard.”

He said meeting participants thought the sale might mean there could eventually be structures built that would destroy their views and even called the actions “Immoral.”

Christy said the auction is open to anybody and will be advertised statewide.

While he understands the concerns of community members, he said that unlike public lands, trust lands are not managed under multiple-use mandates agencies like the U.S. Forest Service or BLM are required to use. SITLA’s concern is to maximize funds for education. Part of that mandate requires the organization not reveal negotiations concerning sales or leases and their participants.

Whoever ends up with the property will still have access issues with the land. That will mean dealing with Dell Tait, the Mount Carmel landowner who grants permission to use the road across his land.

Tait has always been generous with unlocking the gated road so members of the public can explore Sugar Knoll free of charge. He said Kane County is now trying to claim ownership of the road that has been behind the locked gate for at least 10 years.

He said he has never seen any type of county maintenance equipment on the road, and is in negotiations with the county to determine ownership.

“I don’t know what is going to happen,” he said.