In the beginning, there was no "Utah."
There was land, and for thousands of years, the Indians used it as their needs required. Then came the white settlers who drew boundary lines and began labeling parcels "yours" and "mine."With statehood came even more boundaries. Private lands. Bureau of Land Management Lands. Forest Service Lands. Park Service lands. Indian lands. State lands.
And school lands. In fact, with the legal formation of the state, the single largest landholder, besides the federal government, became Utah's schoolchildren. Approximately 6 million acres - four sections in every 36-square-mile township - were designated school trust lands.
The 1896 Utah statehood enabling act assures "sections numbered two, 16, 32 and 36 in every township . . . are hereby granted to said state for the support of common schools." Each six-mile-square township contains 36 one-mile sections.
According to the law, those school lands were to be managed, developed, leased, sold or held on speculation for the benefit of Utah schools. In return, Utah would give up its right to tax any federal lands.
The law provided for the state to select other parcels of land to replace sections or parts of sections that had already been sold or that were located within Indian, military or other federal reservations.
Unlike other government-owned lands, these lands are not "public" lands managed for the overall public welfare. They are "trust" lands managed under the strict definitions of the trust.
It all looked good on paper in 1896 before environmental impact statements, archaeological surveys and the Bureau of Land Management were created, complicating the issue of who owns the land and whether, when, how and why it should be used.
Today, the lands that were to provide ongoing revenue to Utah schools, giving taxpayers a bit of relief, are islands in a sea of federal lands, managed according to federal land policy and returning very little to the trust.
Despite the guarantee in the enabling act, Utah has never actually been granted in-lieu lands in many instances, said Douglas Bates, legal and legislative counsel to the State Board of Education.
Through the years, more and more trust lands have been locked up within the boundaries of military installations, national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges, recreation areas and other special-use areas, again sometimes without recompense or the granting of in-lieu lands, Bates said.
The federal government now controls 68.8 percent of Utah's land, and approximately 300,000 acres of trust lands now are "inholdings" within the boundaries of such federal tracts.
"We are held hostage with the way they are spread around the state," said Bud Scruggs, chief of staff to Gov. Norm Bangerter. "They are impossible to manage, and it is impossible for the state to maximize any economic return if they are locked away in a wilderness area or a state or national park."
Several attempts, such as the Sagebrush Rebellion and Project Bold, have been made to reclaim the land from the federal government or consolidate the trust lands into more manageable blocks, but have failed.
Although many of Utah's original school trust sections have been sold, traded or consolidated, a map of the state still is abundantly sprinkled with sections dedicated to the schools. The vista in almost any direction, viewed from almost any vantage point outside a large city, would include trust lands.
Today, Utah's trust lands include 3,749,672 surface acres; 4,687,392 mineral acres; and 1.5 million submerged acres. (See accompanying chart.)
Public schools get by far the lion's share of money generated by the lands. Other entities that had lands set aside for their support include Utah State University, University of Utah, Utah State Hospital, Schools for the Deaf and Blind, public buildings, State Youth Development Center, reservoirs, School of Mines and Miners Hospital.
The trust lands were intended to generate revenue for those beneficiaries. The natural resources within their bounds were to be tapped for enriching their budgets.
In Utah, those resources consist primarily of coal, oil and mineral reserves, agriculture, livestock grazing, forestry and recreation/development potential.
Much of the land is sage-covered "waste" that is too dry for agriculture and lacking other obvious resources to make it profitable for the schools. The primary money-generating uses are mineral, coal and oil extraction and grazing or other agricultural uses.
Laws regulating the trust lands allow for it to be sold only at "fair market price." Income from sales is put into a permanent fund that is invested to raise money. The investment income is distributed to the trust interests, as is income from leases and other uses of the land.
In Utah, the trust lands are administered by the State Land Board through the Division of State Lands and Foresty.
Total land area of Utah: 82,073 square miles
Total surface area of Utah Trust Lands: 5,859 square miles
new director, Division of State
Lands and Forestry
"When Utah first became a state, it was presumed that the greatest value of the trust lands would be related to agriculture. That's why we got so much. Then, when water wasn't available for agriculture, other uses became more apparent.
"The general philosophy in the beginning was to sell the lands. Then it was reversed to a no-sell policy. We recently have received directions from the Legislature to sell the land when there is good opportunity. We are looking at each situation as it develops to determine if the trust would benefit from a sale based on fair market values."
regional representative, Sierra Club
"The state has customarily interpreted the uses for trust lands far too narrowly. There are many multiple-use potentials.
"The state's only driving ethic has been maximizing dollar values when it is very clear that in Utah, in particular, the trust lands
are some of the most beautiful lands in the world. We need to be far more flexible to protect wildlife and other resources. We should consider the value of the tourist industry to the state. I question if leasing or selling the lands to private interests is what the federal government had in mind when it created the trust lands."
Claron E. Nelson
University of Utah
"The trust land beneficiaries have traditionally had little representation on the (State Land) board. The best thing that could happen would be to get rid of the board and turn the management of the lands over to a qualified manager and staff. We should get politics out of the picture.
"Bad management of the lands has cheated education and the other trust land beneficiariess for years. There are dozens of instances in which the lands were sold for a pittance in `sweetheart deals.'
"At this stage, development is the best potential resource for getting a good return from the lands."