Governor Herbert got it wrong: protecting wilderness helps Utah school children

Tuesday’s hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee regarding the Obama Administration’s Wild Lands policy generated more than its share of misinformation, misleading statements, and invented facts and figures.  Case in point: Utah Governor Gary Herbert, in a moment of exuberance, alleged that protecting wilderness could hurt school kids, to the tune of billions of dollars.  However, history does not support his assertion; in fact, quite the opposite, protecting wilderness may actually give Utah’s school kids a better shot at revenue generation.

When Utah joined the Union it was gifted scattered tracts of trust land throughout the state (trust lands are shown in blue on this map).  Utah received lands that were blocked by cliffs, surrounded by deserts, and hidden in canyons and were often not accessible by any existing roads.  These lands were given for the benefit of school kids and Utah interprets that to mean that trust lands should generate revenue.  However, this pattern of land distribution has not lent itself to revenue maximization for the education budget.  When Gov. Herbert says wilderness will hurt school kids he is saying that these trust lands—which are often surrounded by federal lands worthy of wilderness designation—will be made inaccessible by protecting the surrounding public lands.[1] Apparently, the Governor likes to imagine that these scattered tracts of land could be the panacea to Utah’s education budget needs.

However, this is unlikely to ever be the case.  Partly because school trust lands in Utah are so scattered and remote, they never generate much revenue.  In fact, they do not even contribute one percent of the yearly public education budget in Utah.  Indeed, if Utah were to liquidate all of the accrued assets from 115 years of school trust lands management, they would not even cover three months worth of the state education budget![2] Despite the roaring 2000s, when school trust lands witnessed unprecedented levels of oil and gas development as well as a real estate market boom, school trust lands continue to be nothing more than the budgetary equivalent of loose coins under the couch cushions.

Of course, every little bit can help when discussing funding for Utah’s cash-strapped schools.  But, 115 years of school trust land management show us what we can expect from Gov. Herbert’s pipe dream that these lands became the cash cow of education.  This is not going to happen.  Long before Congress passed the Wilderness Act, when the public lands were nothing but a free for all—even more so than now—geography and a lack of infrastructure, among other things, conspired to keep school trust lands as a minor footnote to the education budget.  Federal land protection did not do this then and it does not do this now.

In reality, increasing the amount of protected federal land is probably the best path for increasing the contributions from school trust lands.  The reason for this is because federal land protection spurs beneficial land consolidation, through exchanges with the federal government.  These land exchanges, which result from Congressional desire to protect sensitive areas, trade scattered trust land parcels in remote locations for blocks of federal lands near infrastructure or with development potential. 

The prime example of conservation on public lands benefiting Utah’s school kids was the land exchange motivated by the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  This was possibly the single greatest revenue-generating act in the modern history of school trust lands management.  Utah’s school kids picked up numerous valuable blocks of land with significant oil and gas development potential as well as multiple coal leasing tracts.  In fact, one oil and gas parcel acquired by the state in this exchange provided 60% of all state trust land oil and gas revenue in 2006.  Furthermore, the United States essentially wrote Utah’s school kids a $50 million check.  Just recently, a desire to protect valuable and sensitive lands along the Colorado River led to a second example, the Utah Recreational Land Exchange Act of 2009.  In a trade for these special places, Utah gained trust lands in the Uinta Basin more appropriate, and more profitable, for development.  This was a win-win situation motivated by conserving public lands and its benefits have been loudly touted by the state.

Historically, trust lands development on scattered, remote lands has put very little in education coffers.  Unfortunately, it often leads to significant environmental damage.  This path of futility is what Gov. Herbert championed at the hearing.  It is simply not worth the price; we do not benefit Utah’s school kids in giving away such treasures for pennies.  Furthermore, it prevents the state from following the path that history has shown to be the most beneficial for school kids and education budgets: protecting our wild public lands, thereby spurring beneficial land trades.

[1] As a side note, this argument has no legal basis.  Federal courts have ruled that Utah always has access to its school trust lands, even if the surrounding land were protected as wilderness.

[2] Revenue from school trust lands is deposited in the Permanent School Fund, which is a savings fund where the principle is retained and the yearly interest is disbursed to schools.