This land might be your land

  • STATE-LAND INNOVATION: Sister Jean Miller of the Tierra Madre Development Corp. gives New Mexico State Land Office Assistant Commissioners Don Britt and Harry Relkin a close-up view of the straw bale affordable houses on the U.S.-Mexican border

    Karin Stangl, New Mexico State Land Office

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

State trust land may have a single purpose, but each state has a different way of doing business. Most Western states lease trust land for logging and grazing, and many states have huge subsurface holdings that earn millions from mineral development. A few states are finding that suburban real estate is the real mother lode. Here are some snapshots from around the region:


Acres of state trust land: 2.8 million surface, 4 million subsurface

In 1996, Colorado voters approved Amendment 16 - and, in the words of Colorado State Land Board member Jay Kenney, "turned the agency upside down." Under Amendment 16, the Land Board was no longer required to maximize earnings from its land. Instead, it can earn "reasonable and consistent revenue over time." The measure also established a 300,000-acre Stewardship Trust, which is intended to protect properties until they can be purchased by a community or private preservation group. Lands can be added or subtracted from the Stewardship Trust by a majority vote of the five-member volunteer Land Board.

Though most state land in Colorado earns money from oil and gas development, coal mining and grazing, commercial development may be on the way. The largest intact piece of land in Denver, the former Lowry Bombing Range, is managed by the land board (HCN, 2/12/01: Bombs make way for 'burbs). "Everyone wants that parcel to be open space, but it could be worth $50 million," says Kenney. "We can't just walk away from $50 million."


Acres of state trust land: 2.5 million surface, about 3 million subsurface

Though timber earns the most money for Idaho's school trust - grossing about $71 million last year - grazing uses far more land and attracts far more controversy. Hailey architect Jon Marvel (HCN, 8/2/99: Jon Marvel vs. the Marlboro Man), a confrontational critic of state land grazing, heads the Western Watersheds Project (formerly the Idaho Watersheds Project). Marvel contends that the state Department of Lands, whose grazing fees are sometimes less than 50 cents per acre per year, is selling the school trust short.

The group's bids on state grazing leases have been consistently rejected by the five-member board of land commissioners, which even devised the so-called "anti-Marvel law" to keep Marvel and other environmentalists from bidding on the leases. In 1999, the tide turned: The state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Marvel couldn't be excluded from the lease auctions, and his group now holds a handful of leases on state trust land.


Acres of state trust land: 8.6 million surface, 13 million subsurface

Ray Powell, New Mexico's commissioner of public lands, is often called the West's most forward-thinking land commissioner. Oil and gas leasing produces most of the revenue from New Mexico state lands, and grazing is a distant second. Commercial development is far from a dominant force. But Powell, trained as a veterinarian and biologist, supported long-term development planning for a large parcel of state land on the outskirts of Albuquerque. The department is also working with a nonprofit group called Tierra Madre to develop an affordable housing community on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Powell has also swapped some state land out of Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas. The trades are popular with environmentalists, since isolated state land sections can be a political roadblock to permanent wilderness designation. Sierra Club activist Martin Heinrich gives Powell a glowing review. But land commissioners are elected in New Mexico, and they serve for a maximum of two terms. Powell, a Democrat, will be out of office next year, and the turnover makes Heinrich nervous. "There aren't a lot of tools to protect state lands," he says. "If we get a less progressive land commissioner, it's going to get a lot worse."


Acres of state trust land: 5.1 million surface, 6.3 million subsurface

The Montana Trust Land Management Division's earnings are roughly split between agriculture, minerals development and logging. In 1996, the state Legislature set annual logging levels on trust land at about 42 million board-feet. Previous logging levels had fluctuated from about 17 million to 55 million board-feet, and the Trust Land Management Division calls the new number a "sustained yield." But environmentalists deride it as a "timber target," and say it's harming the slow-growing old-growth forests on the east side of the Rockies.

Commercial development is a small but growing part of Montana trust land management. The division has already developed several properties near small cities, and the state Legislature recently passed a tax incentive for wind-farm development on state land. Now, the division is completing a statewide analysis of development of state lands.


Acres of state trust land: 3.5 million surface, 4.5 million subsurface

Utah's state trust lands got national attention in 1996, when then-President Clinton established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (HCN, 9/30/96: A Bold Stroke: Clinton takes a 1.7 million-acre stand in Utah). The monument boundaries enclosed 176,000 acres of state trust land, and Utah politicians accused the Clinton administration of stealing from the state's schoolchildren.

Two years later, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt agreed to swap the monument's state lands for federal lands around the state. Another federal-state swap has just been completed in Utah's West Desert.

"We've put a half-million acres in conservation, and we've done it at fair market value," says Dave Hebertson of the State Institutional and Trust Administration.

Though such swaps can be good for the monument and other wild lands, they have created state land pockets around many small towns and highway interchanges. Development is an increasingly attractive option for the trust lands administration.

Bill Hedden of the Grand Canyon Trust, a critic of an upscale development planned for state land near Moab (HCN, 3/26/01: Luxury looms over Moab), says communities often have to foot the bill for the developments' roads and other infrastructure. He'd like to see the trust lands administration focus on hospitals, affordable housing and other projects with local benefits.


Acres of state trust land: 3.2 million surface, 3.2 million subsurface

The Washington state land department's decisions attract a lot of attention from Washington's well-organized environmental community. Timber is the biggest moneymaker for the land department, with about 2.8 million acres in production; irrigated agriculture, grazing and commercial development are also part of its portfolio.

In 1996, the land department proposed to log 25,000 acres of the Loomis State Forest in north-central Washington. The Bellingham-based Northwest Ecosystem Alliance appealed the timber sale, and was given the chance to purchase the logging rights and pay for the replacement cost for the land. The total price tag - $16.5 million - dwarfed the group's annual budget. But the alliance hired extra staff, hit the streets, and, thanks to a massive last-minute donation from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, met the land board's tight deadline for purchase (HCN, 3/29/99: Wheeling and dealing).

The alliance is now backing a bill that would require the land department to manage for the "long-term ecological integrity" of trust lands. The Washington state Constitution already requires that trust lands be managed for the long-term benefit of "all the people," not just the public schools, so the proposed bill may have an easier time than the Arizona initiative.


Acres of state trust land: 3.6 million surface, 4.2 million subsurface

Wyoming's energy boom is taking a bite out of state trust lands. In late 1999, a widely circulated memo from the Office of State Lands and Investments advised coalbed methane developers that use of "state land is the operator's choice" (HCN, 9/25/00: Open for business: Wyoming throws away its water to get out the gas). The unabashed boosterism has had an impact. Though almost all of the state's surface acreage is used for grazing, cattle are sharing space with 1,500 coalbed methane wells.

Wyoming is the only Western state that allows its grazing permittees to negotiate "surface damage payments" with energy developers and other commercial users of state lands. Fifty percent of any negotiated payment goes to the permittee, not the school trust, a practice that critics say cost the trust more than $600,000 last year alone.

Casper, Wyo., newspaper publisher John Jolley (HCN, 5/11/98: A fiery Wyoming newspaper pursues the state's fat cats) is trying to keep Wyomingites abreast of these and other state land controversies. The latest issue of Jolley's Grassroots Advocate, published six times each year since 1996, takes on a proposed exchange of 640 acres of state land in the middle of the resort town of Jackson. The state estimates it could earn more than $35 million if the land were sold at public auction, but the land board has agreed to an exchange with developer Snake River Associates.

Jolley sees it as a sweetheart deal. "The only way to get full value for the land is to put it to public auction," he says. "We're allowing someone with political clout to come in and select the premier piece of public land in the state."

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