Inevitably, any disagreement over state-owned lands raises the spectre of schoolchildren in need. In Utah, where spending per pupil ranks lowest in the nation, that dismal statistic has spurred reform.
State lands have
never generated fat revenues for education. In the 1920s, known
coal deposits were sold for just $3 an acre, and those mines are
still active. The military leased other lands for as little as 11
cents an acre.
Overseeing state lands in Utah
for decades was a board with built-in conflicts of interest. Its 10
members represented timber, oil and gas, minerals, grazing,
wildlife and recreation. Only one member directly represented
In the late 1980s, a reform movement
got under way. Educators and parents began to organize on behalf of
schools, and three years ago the state parent-teacher group,
teachers' unions and school officials produced a video pointing out
the value of state lands and their current mismanagement. The
video, shown to gatherings at schools around the state, included a
presentation by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, but
conservationists and their concerns took a back seat. The focus was
on making state lands profitable.
very mention of wilderness can divide communities in Utah, the
image of the needy child drew people together. The alliance grew,
and five months ago the state legislature responded by dissolving
the land board and setting up a new agency. The School and
Institutional Trust Lands Administration has a board of seven
trustees appointed by the governor on the basis of their business
The same alliance also pushed for a new
federal law that may demonstrate to other states how to cash in on
state-owned land that is intermingled with federal lands. The Utah
Schools and Lands Improvement Act, passed by Congress last October,
takes on the state inholding problem. Utah owns 80,000 acres within
national parks, 80,000 acres within national forests, and 40,000
acres within Indian reservations.
acreage within national parks were sold to the highest bidder or
developed, it would fetch "hundreds of millions of dollars," says
Margaret Bird, an economist and consultant to the Utah Office of
Education. Bird says the federal government has bought private
inholdings within its parks but ignored state lands, acting as
though the state lands were already federal.
"The schoolchildren of Utah should not be
financing the national needs," Bird says.
the federal government's attention, a few years ago the state sold
one of its inholdings within a national forest; the U.S. Forest
Service suddenly "realized it had hundreds of time bombs ticking
away in its forests," says Kevin Carter, deputy director of Utah
Under the new federal law, land
agencies are to acquire 200,000 acres of Utah inholdings. As
payment, Utah will get federal lands it can develop, including a
parcel adjacent to a ski area and a site for telecommunications, as
well as up to $50 million in federal mineral royalties.
Conservationists are watching the process closely, fearing that
some development plans will result in inappropriate uses of the
Five years ago, Utah's state lands
generated about $9 million for education. Last year the lands
brought in $21 million, which still amounts to less than 2 percent
of the total state funding for education. Utah has its eyes on New
Mexico, where state lands generate 20 percent of total education