Utah kids benefit from state land reform

  • Cartoon about school trust lands money

    Elmer Sprunger, Big Fork Eagle
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, 'Unranchers' reach for West's state lands.

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 education.

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.

Although the 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 skills.

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.

If Utah's 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.

To get 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 state lands.

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 land.

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 funds.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.