Seized tribal lands generate millions of dollars for this Utah university

Utah State University points to ways it acknowledges its land-grant status and gives back, including efforts to support Native students and staff through free tuition and a cultural center.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) This land, east of Moab near Highway 46 and on the Utah-Colorado state border, is among the 35,000 acres in Grand County that were once owned by tribes and now benefit Utah State University.

Hundreds of remote desert acres in Millard County, rich in minerals including tar sands that yield thick black crude oil, are covered by contracts primed to make money for Utah State University.

The state paid nothing for the mineral rights to each of these four 640-acre parcels, northwest of Sevier Lake and next to the route of U.S. 50.

The historic owner — the Ute Indian Tribe — also received nothing from the federal government, which seized the tracts in the 19th century before gifting them to Utah under the Morrill Act, the historic 1862 law that supported 52 land-grant universities across the nation.

Today, Utah State University is one of 14 land-grant universities nationwide with publicly available data that have kept and are still earning income from land that was taken from Indigenous nations — often without compensation — under the act.

USU retains rights to about 31,000 acres of former Native land, acquired under a combination of the Morrill Act and other land grant laws. It also holds the rights to around 75,000 acres of subsurface areas, meaning the oil, gas, minerals and other resources underground.

These properties and rights, now owned by the state, are separate from the 56 million acres the federal government holds in trust for Native American tribes and individuals.

The Salt Lake Tribune obtained data about the seized lands and their uses today through a partnership with Grist’s “Land Grab University” investigation. Grist, a nonprofit, independent media organization, spent a year examining publicly available data to locate trust lands associated with land-grant universities.

The analysis reveals how state trust lands continue to transfer wealth from formerly Indigenous nations to land-grant universities, Grist said in a report published Wednesday, more than a century after the original Morrill Act.

“Universities continue to benefit from colonization,” Sharon Stein, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of British Columbia and a climate researcher, told Grist.

“It’s not just a historical fact,” she said. “The actual income of the institution is subsidized by this ongoing dispossession.”

The Ute Indian Tribe — which gave Utah its name — is the largest former Native owner of this transferred property in Utah, with ties to 40,903 acres. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is close behind, at 39,435 acres. The tribes did not immediately comment on Grist’s data.

[Read more: After ‘disrespectful violations,’ Ute Tribe terminates all nontribal hunting, fishing permits]

In all, this land and these subsurface rights are tied to 30 tribes, from those in and near Utah — such as the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute and Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, at 9,086 acres — to the Bridgeport Indian Colony in California.

The federal government paid nothing for 398 of 552 parcels benefiting Utah State University, or about 75%, according to the data from Grist.

The average compensation paid for the 154 parcels for which the government did pay tribes was a little less than $500, and payments per parcel ranged from $2.83 to $1,446.99. The government paid $2.33 per acre at most and as little as 15 cents per acre for one parcel.

Yet the trust lands are lucrative today, making millions for a permanent fund benefitting USU.

Nationwide, Grist located and mapped more than 8.2 million surface and subsurface acres taken from 123 Indigenous nations and analyzed their ongoing uses. In 2022 alone, these trust lands generated more than $2.2 billion for their schools.

With nearly a quarter of land-grant university trust lands nationwide designated for fossil fuel production or mining, Grist noted, the data also provides insight into the relationship between colonialism, higher education and climate change in the Western United States.

Of the 106,000 or so acres still benefiting USU, nearly 75,000 are earmarked for the production of coal, oil, gas and other minerals, such as helium, lithium and tar sand. Also called oil sand, the sedimentary rock produces bitumen, a thick oil refined and mixed to produce synthetic crude oil. Eastern Utah has the largest deposits of tar sand in the country.

Utah State University works with local tribes to create land acknowledgments, in recognition that its main campus in Logan and others across the state sit on former tribal land, said spokesperson Amanda DeRito. USU also recently created its Native American Cultural Center to enhance “Indigenous students’, faculty and staff experiences,” DeRito said, and ensure “everyone feels empowered, welcome, supported, and nurtured for success.”

How much money does USU get from trust lands?

Former Native lands that benefit USU include sweeping walls of Utah red rock just outside Arches National Park; the road leading up to the Bountiful City Landfill; a bouldering playground at Winchester Park in Murray; and the Crossroads of Taylorsville, via land under discount stores and a chain restaurant.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Winchester Park in Murray on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. Land under a bouldering playground at the park was once owned by tribes; the property now benefits Utah State University.

Most parcels are scattered and rural, though, with no inhabitants and few roads to get there. The acreage in each ranges from about 40 acres in Wayne County to more than 35,000 acres in Grand County; Morgan County is the only county without trust lands benefiting USU.

The acreage generated more than $15 million in revenue over the past five years, with the largest shares coming from oil and gas royalties, and sales and leases for development.

A tiny portion of the revenue is distributed annually to the university; the rest of the income is held in a permanent fund. The payouts equal 4% of the average five-year market value of that fund — which in recent years has provided payments to USU that range from about $125,000 to more than $250,000 a year.

USU also gets thousands more each year specifically for its Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services.

USU, as a land-grant school, and the six Colleges of Education in Utah together are among the 12 historic beneficiaries of state trust lands.

Utah’s ownership of those lands dates back to statehood in 1896 — when Congress granted it millions of acres on the condition that revenue earned from their sale or lease would go into permanent endowments for a dozen specific institutions, from schools for deaf and blind students to a hospital for miners.

During its first 35 years of statehood, Utah sold into private hands more than half of the land gifted by Congress, according to the state Trust Lands Administration. (Created in 1994, it was until recently known as the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA.)

Managing the millions of acres of trust lands Utah still owns, the agency has generated $1.96 billion in revenue and grown the various endowments to $2.5 billion, according to the Trust Lands website. Another state agency — the School and Institutional Trust Funds Office — invests the money in the endowments and manages the annual payments to beneficiaries.

What does USU spend the money on?

Revenues from the trust lands dedicated to the six Colleges of Education are divided among them based on the number of teaching degrees they award. Grist’s analysis included all these teaching-related lands, even though USU gets only its calculated share of revenue from them.

Funds sent to the six colleges are used to “prepare students for leadership and excellence within a diverse and changing educational community,” according to the Trust Lands Administration website.

The six colleges divvied up a $261,291 payout for the fiscal year between July 2022 and July 2023, according to an annual report from the Utah Land Trusts Protection and Advocacy Office.

That same year, USU’s distribution from its land grant endowment was $254,528. USU uses those larger disbursements — a total of $849,779 in the past five fiscal years — to support on-campus student housing, said university spokesperson Amanda DeRito.

That housing is essential, she said, since 85% of USU students live away from home and housing costs are increasing across Utah.

USU has hundreds of students who identify as Native American, DeRito said, including 71% of the students on the university’s Blanding campus. Besides its general land acknowledgment, she said, USU has specific ones for its campuses in Logan, Blanding, Cedar City, Delta, Heber City, Kanab, Moab, Monticello, Orem, Salt Lake City and Wendover.

As of the 2023 fall semester, the university provides full tuition and student body fee scholarships for resident Native Americans. Sixty-six students received the scholarship in fall 2023, DeRito said, for a total of $116,772.56.

Full-time undergraduate students who are members of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation get free tuition and free board, along with the purchase of a meal plan, said George Gover, the tribe’s executive director.

There are six students from the Northwestern Shoshone enrolled at USU and “several graduates,” Gover said. Tribal leadership meets yearly with the university’s head of admissions, he added.

USU’s new cultural center provides academic support and mentoring and holds community engagement events, DeRito said, including the Annual Echoing Traditional Ways Pow Wow, now in its 47th year.

‘Willing to work with us’

The Salt Lake Tribune was not able to reach officials with the Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and other tribes associated with school trust lands that benefit USU before deadline.

In addition to free tuition, board and meals for students from the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, the tribe has worked with USU to restore the site of the Bear River Massacre, and is grateful for the work professors and students have done on that land, said Brad Parry, the tribe’s vice president.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Super heated waters bubble to the surface on Oct. 6, 2022, on the Bear River near Preston, Idaho, the site of the Bear River Massacre. A village of Shoshone were attacked by U.S. soldiers on Jan. 29, 1863, one of the largest slayings of Indigenous people in North American history. The Shoshone have acquired the site with plans to turn it into a place of healing.

Parry, who was hired to manage the project, said work with the Utah Conservation Corps — an AmeriCorps program based in the university’s Center for Community Engagement — to remove an invasive species of tree has been critical.

Professors also have helped the tribe learn about the sacred site’s geology and history, he said. One class hangs game cameras and goes through hours of footage, Parry said, then gives the tribe a log. The hope is that they’ll start to see native animals returning as the site is restored, he said.

“With Utah State [University], it’s been wonderful that they have programs and professors who are willing to work with us on our land,” he said, “and would involve us in things that would be on their state trust land.”

For other state-owned lands within the tribe’s ancestral territory, he said, officials have been good partners. In one example, state officials have included the tribe in discussions about water preservation, he said, and even argued they should have hunting rights in Idaho.

“I think on both sides,” he said “we’re working really hard to understand each other.”

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.