When Utah became a state in 1896, it was sent forth with a dowry from Congress. A checkerboard of square-mile parcels scattered throughout the state adding up to some 7.4 million acres. These properties were not public lands or preserves in the usual sense, but an endowment to be managed, leased, swapped and sometimes sold for the benefit of a specific set of public institutions, mostly schools.
In those days, doing a literal land office business — making lots of money in real estate — was the point. And very Utah. Preserving any land for the lasting benefit of the environment was not entertained.
By 1994, concern that the trust lands hadn’t been well managed led the Utah Legislature to create a semi-independent entity called the School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration, known to its friends as SITLA. Its mission was to maximize the annual revenue and permanent endowment of the fund. Now down to 3.4 million acres, SITLA since its creation has brought in $1.96 billion in revenue and built a permanent fund of $2.5 billion.
That’s great. Utah’s schools need all the financial help they can get. But the school budgets aren’t the only thing that should matter, to the taxpayers, to the state, to SITLA. It certainly isn’t the most important thing if you are concerned about future generations of students and the world they will have to live in.
Moving forward in a world of climate change, sustainability, not just profit, must climb to the top of the SITLA agenda. And the agency has an opportunity to demonstrate the ways in which those two goals are fully compatible, if one takes a long enough view.
Take, for example, a proposal SITLA is now entertaining to lease out some 100 acres in the town of Kanab, half the land planned for a high-end golf course. The project is to be managed by the Kane County Water Conservancy District and bankrolled, at least in part, by the state and by Kane County.
The objections to such a plan are obvious and have been stated by just about everyone who doesn’t work for the water district, an agency headed by former Utah legislator Mike Noel. Not everyone in town thinks that a tony golf course catering to a jet-setting clientele is likely to be a profitable, even a break-even, enterprise, given Kanab’s remote location and less-than-resort-like climate.
Noel has already schmoozed a $10 million loan out of the state’s Community Impact Board — over the objections of the board’s professional staff. The CIB manages a pot of money raised from mineral royalties paid to the state, a fund intended to help make communities dependent on the extractive economy whole after suffering the ecological damage and boom-and-bust economic cycles the fossil fuel industry is heir to.
The pitch is that, even if the golf course isn’t profitable, it would draw business to the town’s hotels and restaurants and boost both the private sector economy and the county’s tax base. Noel says he has an agreement to siphon off part of Kane County’s hotel tax revenue to support the project, though the county says no such deal has been struck.
Officially, SITLA is to weigh Noel’s proposal alongside two other pitches it has for the use of it’s Kanab property and decide, at its Nov. 18 meeting, which is likely to be the most profitable for the education fund. Ethically, the agency should also consider whether creating a water-hungry attraction in the middle of an arid landscape is something it should give its imprimatur to.
Noel’s best point is that rural Utah is, and ought to be, transitioning from an economy based on digging things up to one based on tourism and hospitality. That is a factor SITLA should consider in all of its business and land use decisions as it becomes, like the rest of the Utah economy, less petro-dependent.
Chances are SITLA may reject Noel’s plan because it is not economically viable, without even having to move on to concerns of environmental sustainability.
What should guide that agency’s thinking, though, is that, taking the long view, what is smart economically and what is wise environmentally are more the same than we might have thought.
SITLA can be reached through the agency’s website, https://trustlands.utah.gov/