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SCHOOL TRUST LANDS ISSUE REACHES CRUCIAL CROSSROADS

Utah is the closest it has ever been to resolving the decades-old problem of school trust lands that are inside the boundaries of federal forests, parks and Indian reservations.

If a bill now in the U.S. House fails to pass, Utah's children will be the losers - again.If the bill fails and the state does not continue to pursue the cause - legislatively if possible, through litigation if necessary - the lands will continue to languish in unproductive limbo while Utah taxpayers struggle to educate the state's many children.

About 200,000 acres of trust land - set apart at statehood to generate money for education - have become termed "inholdings." As long as they remain inside the federal tracts, there is extremely little hope that they can be put to any productive use that would add to education's coffers.

The bill currently before the House would relinquish the state's control over the lands in exchange for income from federal mineral lands, a communications site in Uintah County and land near the Beaver Mountain ski resort in Cache County.

The exchange would be beneficial for both the Bureau of Land Management and for the state, resolving management problems at both ends.

Estimates of the money that would be added to the school account over the term of the agreement range from $50 million to $200 million. The income ultimately would depend on appraisals of the affected land.

As the money came in, it would be added to the permanent trust lands account, which now stands at almost $60 million. Interest from the account (now averaging about 8 percent per year) supports Utah's school program.

The opportunity to double or more than double the permanent fund should be impetus enough to prod everyone to push for a resolution of the problem. While the income from an exchange would not make a significant dent in Utah's education funding challenge, it would help. Something is always more than nothing, and in the current situation, nothing is what the state is getting for the lands.

The State Land Board, which oversees the trust lands, and the attorney general's office, which has worked out the details of the proposal, have achieved a near-miracle in getting groups with different interests in the land to support the exchange proposal.

If that united front falls apart, the state may find itself back on square one. Regardless of what happens in the current congressional session, the need for unanimity will remain as Utah goes forward to press for a resolution of the inholdings.

Utah's rural counties, where the bulk of the inholdings are located, are not entirely happy with the proposal before Congress. Environmentalists begin to squirm when they feel their interests may be compromised. Education leaders are keeping an eagle eye on the situation to assure a fair return to students.

Even Utah's congressional delegates have not agreed on all the elements of the exchange. There is plenty of opportunity for the current level of support to disintegrate.

It's vital that it hang together until Utah and the federal government have at least agreed that an exchange is in the best interests of everyone concerned. If such agreement can be achieved, there will be plenty of opportunity to work on the details.