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School Trust Lands Cause Controversy Out West

A little-known source of funding for education, the school trust lands located in some of the western states, is becoming a source of controversy as the possible uses of these lands change. Developers, real estate builders, and local communities now want to put the school trust lands to new uses.

School trust lands date back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1785 when Congress established a policy of setting aside land in trust to benefit public education at the time a state was admitted to the union. The enabling act required each state to provide a public school system in its constitution, with the income from the trust lands to be used to benefit the schools. In each townshp of six miles by six miles, one section (one mile by one mile) was set aside in trust for public education.

At first, some states quietly sold all or most of these lands for profit, and little remains of that heritage. At a result, Congress placed increasingly stringent requirements on the states, and most western states entered the union after those requirements were in place. Today, 15 states continue to own and manage trust lands, but nine states have significant holdings. In addition, when lands were sold by the state it was required to place the revenue in a permanent trust fund.

Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming still have significant trust lands. Four states, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming, have trust funds in excess of one billion dollars each.

Like many land use decisions, particularly in areas experiencing growth, the use of these trust lands is becomingly increasingly controversial. Grazing, timber production, and other traditional uses are at odds with public interest in recreation or open spaces. And, the growth of neighboring communities generates pressure for residential or industrial development.

As a result, state trust land managers find their work increasingly difficult and their decisions often severely criticized. And educators and community leaders must grapple with the conflicting interests while protecting the educational uses to which the trust lands were dedicated.

Further information about the trust land issues can be found on the websites of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Children's Land Alliance Supporting Schools.