Guest Editorial: Public needs to know about state lands
For years I have consistently heard how poorly school teachers are paid and why it is our present legislators refuse to correct this gross error. I am writing this column in the hopes that all readers can understand why Utah teacher salaries are lower than New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming.
At the very beginning of statehood, these other states started to manage their school trust lands efficiently. Our legislators today cannot correct a problem that was created a 150 years ago; an error that was committed by people who could not grasp or understand the value of a gift that had been granted to our state by the federal government through the Enabling Act.
When Utah was granted statehood on January 4,1896, the federal government gave the state parcels of land to be managed in a trust to provide financial support for public education and 11 other public institutions. At that time, the State of Utah came under the Enabling Act. Heber Manning Wells was Utah's first elected governor and was the first director over the lands covered by the Enabling Act.
Section 6 of the Enabling Act reads:,"That upon admission of said State into the Union, sections numbered, two, 16, 32, and 36 of every township were given to the state." It stated that these sections could not be taken away by any federal government agency.
The monies derived from each of these four sections in every township, often referred to as school trust sections, were to be used only to support and sustain the educational system within the State of Utah. This portion of the act granted seven million acres and was to be used for the funding of the elementary and high schools within the state.
Section 8 of the Enabling Act states that in addition to the above, an additional 110,000 acres of lands were granted to the state for the use of the University of Utah, and two hundred thousand acres for use of an agriculture college known today as Utah State University, which totals 7,310,000 acres of land to be used exclusively for the state of Utah's educational system.
Revenue collected from these lands was to be deposited into a permanent trust account, and that money deposited therein could never be withdrawn. The money schools were to receive was from the interest off the monies deposited into the fund.
It is here where our teachers of today are affected by the stupidity, and lack of foresight leaders had at the time. They just didn't recognize the money making potential from the lands the federal government had given the State of Utah.
At that time, these school trust lands were managed by an agency known as the Division of State Lands and Forestry. For the next 97 years, members of this agency along with our governors and legislators could have been anyone in your family genealogy including great grandfathers, grandfathers, fathers, or uncles. During this critical period of time, the governor and members of this board were dumfounded and could not or did not come to understand the potential of generating billions of dollars from the lands to put in the trust fund. Suffice it to say, the only thought they had in their mind and for many years to follow was how to get this elephant off their backs. Down through the years this agency did exactly that. They frittered away over three million five hundred thousand acres of school trust lands, some containing minerals worth billions of dollars, for paltry pennies.
Money coming into the school trust fund became the petty cash fund for our governors to use to promote their own private programs within the state. I do believe most governors and others handling the trust fund did not use one dime for their own personal gain. But there were a few that did. Some funds were used on their own personal pet projects within the state; however, most of the funds expended were used to garner votes.
In his first term, Governor Mike Leavitt stated he would veto any trust land bill that came to his desk for signature. Representative Mel Brown of Coalville was a supporting member of a group known as the Cowboy Caucus. The Cowboy Caucus consisted of members from rural counties in Utah. When Brown made it known that the Cowboy Caucus was solidly behind him, it was brought to the attention of Governor Leavitt that the cowboys were strapping on their gun belts and would shoot down any bill the governor wanted passed. When Brown's bills were sent to Governor Leavitt the second time, the governor signed bills which led to the creation of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. The administration is now responsible for the remaining 3.5 million acres of school trust lands. Today the permanent state school fund has grown to over $805 million.
After the Wilderness Act in 1964 and the Endangered Species Act in 1966 were passed, the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) appointed Margaret Bird as the State School Trust Land Specialist to watch over the school trust lands and how they were managed. Bird could immediately see that our school trust lands were being managed very poorly, in fact hardly at all. She spoke with many, many state legislators and all she could get from them was a dazed look as they did not, could not, or would not bother or listen to her as she shared the problem with them.
She finally caught the ear of Brown who listened and soon understood the travesty that was occurring on the management of the lands.
In 1993, Brown proposed legislation that reorganized the new School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. The Board of Trustees now consists of Michael P. Morris, Chairman, John Ferry, Gayle McKeachnie, James Eardley, Michael Brown, and John Scales with Kevin S. Carter as director. The board and administration are doing an outstanding job in managing our school trust lands and depositing over $650 million into the school trust account bringing the total dollars in our trust account to slightly above $805 million today. All of this has been accomplished in the last 10 years.
Let's go back to the ranch and clarify where our trust lands went and why so few dollars are in our school trust fund. But first let me bring to your attention that at this time New Mexico, Arizona, and Wyoming still have over 85 percent of their original trust lands that were granted at statehood. All three of them have over $18 billion dollars in their school trust fund account.
When Utah was granted statehood and awarded the seven million acres of trust lands, there were several large cattle ranchers having herds of cattle up to several hundred head. There were also wool growers some with five herds containing 2,500 head of sheep per herd. Our forest lands and desert lands were open range. Some ranchers saw an opportunity to obtain hundreds of acres of cheap choice grazing lands. They went to the State Land Board individually saying "Look, you have lands I am grazing on, you do not know how many head I have on your school sections, and you do not have the help to find out. So, why don't you transfer said school sections to that county the trust lands are in, then the county can appraise these school sections with the understanding that the county will sell those school sections to me. I will pay them property taxes and this way someone will be getting something from this land where as it now stands, the state or the county is getting nothing".To those managing the trust lands it was a good deal, and so it was. Several million acres of school trust lands were sold to these ranchers for pennies.
Another incident concerning the lands revolves around coal. The Utah Fuel Coal Mining Company had coal mines in Carbon County at Clear Creek, Scofield, Castle Gate, and Kenilworth which employed approximately 2,000 people. A superintendent of one of these mines had two daughters who approached the trust land board offering to buy 29 sections of school trust land sections for $65 per section. These parcels contained the veins of coal where these mines are located. Revenues lost from coal mined from these school sections would have raised the salaries of our teachers by $250 month. Money from the trust fund could have been used to build new schools, and the county tax dollar now being used to build new schools could have been re-directed towards school teacher's salaries.
To bring out the picture more vividly you can see where many of these deals took place as you drive on the roads passing through the Ashley, Dixie, Fishlake, Manti-LaSal, Uinta, and Wasatch-Cache National Forests. You can still see the remains of old and new ranch houses and fences along these routes in the tops of these mountains. Many, many acres of lands were at one time school trust land sections that were frittered away to get the elephant off the back of those people on the State Lands and Forestry Board.