Sitla and DWR Reach Agreement on Lands
|SITLA land in Emery County. |
During the March meeting of the Emery County Public Lands Council, Bryan Torgerson from SITLA gave an informative presentation about the school trust lands organization and how it works. In the February meeting the council requested of Torgerson a more detailed report on how SITLA and the Division of Wildlife Resources have worked out the agreement to allow hunting on SITLA lands and the compensation for SITLA to allow this use.
Torgerson explained the SITLA organization. Trust lands were granted to Utah schools by the United States Congress in 1894 (two years prior to statehood) for the financial support of Utah's public schools. The lands were granted in a trust, with public schools as the primary beneficiary of the trust. They are not public lands. This fact is backed by Utah's Constitution, state law, and 200 years of case-law. Utah law states that the trust beneficiary "...does not include other governmental institutions or agencies, the public at large, or the general welfare of the state."
In 1994, following a two year legislative task force and a one year citizen task force, the legislature reorganized the administration of trust lands and clarified its mandate to be operated similarly to a business. Because it is run as a business, no general fund dollars are used for the management of trust lands. SITLA is required by law to receive fair market value for the use of trust lands, especially where commercial opportunities present themselves. This includes commercialized hunting opportunities that are clearly out there and in strong demand.
In 1997, SITLA entered into an agreement (a memorandum of understanding) with DWR. Essentially, the agreement provides that most of the 3.4 million acres of trust lands are open for public hunting. This access for unencumbered (non-leased) trust lands was granted in return for an annual payment of $200,000. It was recognized that the $200,000 was below market value at that time and that both agencies would also pursue additional general fund appropriations from the legislature for access to trust lands by the general public (this never occurred). Moreover, this agreement precluded the use of trust lands by Cooperative Wildlife Management Units for its 10 year term. The agreement expires in 2007.
SITLA recently hired independent hunting consultants to determine the potential value of hunting access on trust lands. The appraisal identifies almost 1 million acres of trust land that could be commercialized and leased to outfitters and adjoining landowners for marketing hunter access.
SITLA has data that provides substantial reason to believe that the prime hunting areas on trust lands could be leased for much more than the $250,000 current annual payment for hunting access. SITLA would prefer to keep these lands open for public access to hunters if a way to provide fair values to the schools can be found.
For the past three years, SITLA has engaged DWR in discussions to formulate a new agreement that more accurately reflects current fair value for hunter access to trust lands.
Most importantly, SITLA prefers to keep school lands open to the public for hunting. But consistent with its mandate, it must receive a fair return in order to preserve that option on its commercially marketable lands.
In February 2007, SITLA and the DWR entered into another 10 year memorandum of understanding. The MOU terms allow public access to trust lands for hunting, trapping, fishing, and viewing of wildlife; prohibits participation in any Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit or big game landowner association on trust lands; SITLA cannot convey to another party any hunting, trapping, fishing or wildlife viewing rights on any trust lands; prohibits the establishment of a domestic elk hunting park or other facility for hunting of privately owned big game animals on trust lands; DWR shall pay the trust land account a base amount of $500,000 for a one-year term, commencing Sept. 1, 2007. Thereafter, annual payments shall be made on or before the end of the first fiscal quarter of each year, and to bring the annual payment closer to the fair market value it will be adjusted annually by compounding the yearly payment by 5 percent
The trustland's ability to generate revenues from various sources is very important for the amount of dividends that can be paid. The trust land dividend to Utah's schools must not be underrated. The amount of that dividend has increased dramatically in just a few short years. The direct distributions began in 2000. That year the distribution was $4.9 million. This school year (2006-2007) the distribution increased to more than $18 million. The amount of money distributed is nowhere near the total annual revenues generated from trust lands. It is the amount of money generated from interest and dividends on the Permanent State School Fund and is limited by current state law.
Torgerson said the goal of SITLA is to get the trustfund to $1 billion in the next few years. After this goal is reached the payout to schools will increase. Currently interest is also going back into the fund to achieve the $1 billion goal as soon as possible.
Torgerson said the agreement with the DWR will benefit all involved. The school trustlands monies are allocated to each school in Utah on a percentage basis. The school trustlands committee meets and decides where the trustlands money will be spent. Emery County schools have spent their money on a variety of programs since the year 2000, the money has increased each year. Money can be spent on books, computer programs, technology, science, math, reading, etc. There are stipulations to what can be purchased. It cannot be used to purchase equipment such as desks, curtains for the stage, and other like items. After the trustlands committee select where the money will go, they fill out and submit the plan to the school board for their approval, after their approval the plan is forwarded to the state office of education afterwhich the money will be sent to the district and then to the individual schools.
Torgerson said that SITLA is largely misunderstood. In Utah, some trustlands are put up for sale, if it is an advantage to do so. But, he said at the rate they sell their land it would take 300 years to sell all the SITLA land and that is not the plan. SITLA is more land rich than money rich. The $1 billion goal is a benchmark which has been set by the legislature. The permanent fund keeps increasing and just the interest from this is spent. The fund itself isn't touched.
The public lands council thanked Torgerson for his presentation on SITLA. The next public lands council meeting is slated for April 10 at 10 a.m.