Trust lands pose one of the most important emerging conservation issues on the Colorado Plateau.
These are lands that Congress granted at statehood to support schools and other beneficiary institutions in nearly every Western state. By accepting the land grants, states agreed to a series of compacts with the federal government — compacts that impose a perpetual trust obligation, which the Utah Attorney General spells out succinctly:
“The interest of the school and institutional trust beneficiary is paramount and must always prevail over any conflicting public use or purpose.”
Since the beneficiaries include public schools, state colleges and universities, state hospitals, and schools for the deaf and blind, who could possibly oppose trust administrators? To answer this question, we must understand how much land is available, where it is located, and how people make it pay. It’s a sobering story.
Although sales of some trust lands could accommodate growth and help schools, aggressive development could harm communities, wildlife habitat, open spaces, watersheds, and wild places. These land assets will never provide more than a minuscule level of support for the schools, but they can be invaluable as outdoor classrooms, recreation areas, and wildlife habitat. They can also provide low-cost sites for schools, parks, hospitals, extended-care living facilities, and affordable housing complexes, all of which can be unaffordable to small communities.
Arizona, Colorado, and Washington have passed legislation shielding ecologically and socially valuable portions of their trust estates from development. Colorado now prohibits development when the costs to communities are projected to exceed benefits to schools; Utah voters deserve a chance to consider a proposal at least as good.
It is time to reconsider how to achieve the maximum benefit — for all of Utah — from our spectacular trust lands.