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Trust lands have to pay off

Published February 6, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As managers of Utah's school trust lands, we appreciate The Tribune's recognition of a Utah State University study showing that Utah has recently outperformed almost all of its peer states in increasing the state's trust lands endowment ("Short takes on the news," Jan. 26).

Since Utah's system for managing school trust lands was reformed in 1994, the paltry $60 million then accumulated since statehood has multiplied to almost $1.5 billion. The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration is working to build upon this perpetual endowment for future generations of Utah students.

The Tribune's commentary goes on to suggest that some trust lands should be left undeveloped and "perhaps" traded for land better suited for non-recreational uses. There is a big problem with that "perhaps." SITLA has no complaint with land trades; we have deeded 515,000 acres of trust lands inside national parks, forests and monuments to the United States in recent years, and received significant mineral and surface lands to benefit Utah schools in return.

SITLA has been the primary catalyst for bringing such exchanges to fruition. We are continuing to devote considerable staff time and money to implement additional land exchanges with both federal land managers and the state Division of Wildlife Resources.

These trades put sensitive lands of many types into location-appropriate management, and allow the school trust to be repaid with more usable land.

The problem with the "perhaps" is that it suggests that school trust lands be left undeveloped without compensation to the school endowment. The irony of this suggestion is that the USU study cited by The Tribune pointed out how Western public school systems have lost huge revenues over the decades by just this sort of uncompensated land use.

Interest groups of all types can always find a reason that they should get free land. If school trust lands are to be dedicated for conservation use without compensation, there is no logical reason that trust lands shouldn't be given over for free for any other use that is felt beneficial, let's say motocross tracks, or municipal waste facilities, or a hundred other uses.

And that's just how USU found that the Western states squandered their school trust land grants, until voters and courts demanded that the original purposes of the grants — to support, and only to support, public education — be honored.

Over a million acres of Utah school trust lands — almost one third of the entire school portfolio — are located within areas proposed for wilderness or national monuments by various groups.

SITLA agrees that some of these lands have significant natural, wilderness and scenic values, and should be traded or sold into conservation status. Other lands have valuable mineral resources, and should be retained for future development to support schools, local jobs and the Utah economy.

We are working with the Utah congressional delegation, local governments, land users, federal agencies and conservationist groups to find consensus on these contentious issues. Unfortunately, in these discussions we are finding that some — though certainly not all — who seek to place school lands into wilderness or monuments don't want to find adequate replacement land to compensate the school trust.

For them, virtually everything is off the table, and the school trust should take the hit. This isn't acceptable. Those proposing new conservation designations that encompass Utah's school lands need to recognize that lands or funds have to be found to compensate the school trust.

Compromise has to come from both sides. No "perhaps" about it.

Kevin S. Carter is the director of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which manages 3.4 million acres of trust lands for the financial benefit of Utah's public schools and 11 other beneficiary institutions. He lives in Kaysville.