A half-dozen wilderness proposals being considered for Utah could affect from 57,000 to more than 600,000 acres of school trust lands.
The fate of those lands should be clearly understood before any wilderness designations are made, Utah education officials say.The trust lands, four one-square-mile sections in every 36-square-mile township, were set aside when Utah was made a state to generate money for public education.
Under the enabling act that created the state, the federal government was directed to give "in-lieu" lands when trust lands were "captured" inside the boundaries of federal tracts such as Indian reservations, national parks and forests, or military installations.
Utah already has approximately 300,000 acres of trust lands that are "in-holdings" within federal tracts for which the state has not been compensated, said Margaret Bird, state lands spokesperson in the State Office of Education. The wilderness proposals could double that acreage, depending on which of the plans, if any, is adopted by Congress. The issue will not be debated for a couple of years.
"The schoolchildren of Utah will be grossly cheated if trust lands are locked up in wilderness areas without a fair exchange," Bird said.
The Utah PTA, which has adopted better management of the school trust lands as a goal, also raised "a loud alarm" to those involved with the wilderness proposals. "In this day of limited revenues and burgeoning classrooms, we must scrutinize very carefully every potential revenue and every potential revenue loss," said PTA President Pat Hales.
Utah "has an obligation to raise a fuss" about the trust lands issue as wilderness studies go forward, said Assistant Attorney General Steve Alder, who is tracking the various proposals.
Those who are proposing wilderness designations say they are cognizant of the trust lands and expect protection of the trust interests to be part of the wilderness debate.
"We want to help Utah's trust-land situation, not harm it," said Scott Kearin, administrative assistant for Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. Owens is promoting the Utah Wilderness Coalition proposal, the most dramatic of the wilderness plans. The coalition proposes that 5.7 million acres of Utah land - a significant percentage of the state's total - be declared wilderness.
The designation would virtually preclude any development of resources on trust lands, Bird said. It also would affect trust lands bordering on wilderness tracts because of sensitive issues such as water, roads and "viewsheds," she said.
"This alternative would result in 630,000 acres of trust in-holdings," said Bird. "Under this plan, 17 percent of the school trust lands designated to offset the tax burden would be seriously impaired from generating any revenues."
Kearin noted that the bulk of the trust lands involved are not now generating any money for schools. He said Owens will be talking soon with everyone concerned with the issue.
A resurrection of the "Project Bold" concept might be feasible, he said. That plan, advanced several years ago, suggested that the federal government trade in-holdings for tracts of land in areas of the state where development is more feasible. It was dropped without any action being taken.
"We expect to have something (to propose) within two to three weeks," he said.
Grazing, which is the most productive use of trust lands in the areas being studied for wilderness, could continue under the designation, Kearin said.
However, said Doug Bates, State Office of Education attorney, grazing is producing the highest return on those lands at the moment only because mineral development was banned during the wilderness studies. Mining and petroleum development have the greatest potential on the trust lands being considered.
Bird said that state education officials also are very concerned with the way the BLM has drawn its wilderness proposals. Some sections are entirely within the proposed wilderness, while lines have been drawn around other sections so that they abut on proposed wilderness, but are not inside the boundaries. "Cherry stem" configurations, where wilderness boundaries enclose trust sections on two or three sides, are common in the BLM proposals, she said.
"Those (adjoining) sections would not be officially part of the wilderness, and the government would not be obligated to consider `in-lieu' trades, but they would become de facto wilderness because of the difficulty in developing them," Bird said.
Alder called the BLM's proposed lines that skirt or only partially enclose trust land sections "unfair and dishonest."
Gregory Thayn, Utah wilderness coordinator for the BLM, said he was "directed by Washington to exclude other ownerships when possible." He said study of the proposed wilderness has included consideration for the trust lands.
No wholesale swap of lands for all the trust sections within wilderness would be likely, unless provided for by Congress in wilderness legislation, Thayn said. However, the BLM would be willing to cooperate with the state in exchanges of land inside wilderness areas on a case-by-case basis, he said, when an economic potential was evident on a "captured" section of trust land.
Current uses, including grazing and mineral development, would be recognized "at least for the term of the current lease," he said.
Utah Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, takes a different view. "Congress is not bound by BLM policy," he said. He is working on several proposals to obtain in-lieu lands - hopefully productive lands such as coal or other energy resources - for trust lands already locked up in government tracts, particularly national parks, he said. The trust lands have intrinsic value that should not be dismissed, he said.
The prospects of long, costly court cases to determine access and water rights on trust lands within and bordering on wilderness areas could unite traditional foes in the desire to have the issues clarified before designations are declared, Bird said.
Environmentalists who promote the most restrictive definitions of wilderness lands are no more eager for such suits than prospective developers, she said.
One case in Utah has already defended the rights of people with financial interests inside wilderness boundaries to build access roads to those properties.
(Information from map)
Proposed wilderness designations in Utah would create trust land in-holdings in the following amounts:
Plan Total Sq. Acres Trust Land Acres
Federal BLM proposal 1,975,219 104,261
Regional BLM proposal 956,616 56,999
Paramount proposal 1,500,000 84,771
Cluster proposal 2,500,000 150,795
All wilderness proposal 3,200,000 183,248
proposal (Owens plan) 5,700,000 630,000
Source: Utah State Office of Education document