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Know the West

Utah kids benefit from state land reform


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.