Among publicly owned lands, state trust lands are an anomaly. Granted at statehood by the federal government, they run in patchwork patterns across the West, from the red Utah desert to the dense forests of Oregon. Their arrangement on the landscape is utterly arbitrary -- generally, two square-mile sections, numbered 16 and 36 in every township unit, were granted "for the support of common schools."
What's left of these relic lands varies by state, but their mandate as piggybanks for state services -- schools, prisons and other institutions -- endures. After Nevada and other states sold off most of their trust lands by the early 1900s, the federal government cracked down on newer states like Arizona and New Mexico, ordering them to manage those lands more strictly to fund schools.
Managed this way, state trust lands can seem more like private land than a public resource. Access for recreation or hunting is often limited, even prohibited, although some lands are leased by other agencies for that purpose. "Our litmus test (for management) is in large part dollars and cents," says Ryan Lance, director of Wyoming's Office of State Lands and Investments. "We are very careful not to label them as public lands."
Over the decades, trust lands have often been subject to intensive, revenue-driven management -- clear-cuts, gas wells and, more recently, strip malls and cul-de-sacs. States lease land to developers, logging companies and others, or sell it outright at public auction, to make money for beneficiaries. Some states sell conservation easements on trust lands, but managers often simply "dispose" of environmentally sensitive lands altogether by selling or transferring them to non-profits or park agencies, and acquiring other lands more suited for development.
Today, the West's growing and more urban population, and its shift away from extractive industry, has increased pressure to manage land for more than just revenue, says Susan Culp of the Sonoran Institute, an Arizona public-lands think tank. Trust-land managers are being pushed to find new ways to compensate schools while appeasing calls for conservation. Washington's Blanchard Mountain agreement and Community Forest Trust are two examples of this type of compromise (see main story). "There is also a culture shift within trust land agencies," says Culp, with new leadership and staffers finding innovative ways to generate revenue. "One thing I think you will start seeing more of throughout the West is a recognition that restoring and conserving some of these lands is part of protecting the corpus of the trust for the beneficiaries."