Utah has a Van Gogh in the attic a valuable resource that is not being fully used - a state official told legislators holding their first meeting of a school trust lands task force.
"We sold much of our heritage for a pittance. We can't regenerate what we've already lost, but we can stop it from happening again by seeing that abuses don't continue," said Douglas Bates, legislative and legal counsel for the State Office of Education.The task force was empaneled by the 1991 Legislature to look at the state's trust lands. Utah has realized less income from its lands than other states in the Mountain West, according to the Western States Land Commissioners Association. The committee must make a report to the Legislature by the end of this year, prior to the 1992 session.
Several speakers urged the committee to protect special resources that are contained in the trust lands. Wilderness values should be considered along with potential income production, said Ken Rait of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
"We can have both," Rait said. He said the state should attempt to exchange scattered sections of school lands into more manageable tracts.
Rep. Grant Protzman, D-Ogden, spoke on behalf of archaeological values, such as those found on school lands in the Cave Towers area of San Juan County.
School organizations spoke in favor of a concerted effort to make the lands more productive. Utah's education budget is enriched by only 1 percent by current income from the lands. In some land-grant states, the figure goes as high as 25 percent.
Utah should file a suit against the federal government, if necessary, to force recompense for lands that already have become "in-holdings" within federal tracts, such as parks, forests and military reservations, said Lily Eskelsen, Utah Education Association president. Approximately 300,000 acres of trust lands are inside such boundaries.
Dick Mitchell, director of the Division of State Lands and Forestry, said efforts to get the federal government to seriously consider the efforts have not been productive. "(They) have absolutely refused to allow us to maximize our losses through the years," he said.
Mitchell said the division works well with the State Lands Board and in recent years has been pursuing more good sales opportunities for the lands, rather than holding them to see if they'd increase in value. Selling them puts them onto tax rolls in the districts in which they are located, he said.
Jim Wilson, legislative counsel to the new committee, said court cases have supported the perception that the sole purpose of the trusts lands is to benefit the beneficiaries. The trust lands, originally four one-mile sections in every 36-square-mile township, were set aside when Utah was created to generate income lost when the federal government retained ownership to about 70 percent of Utah's land surface.
Utah began with about 7 million acres of trust land and now has about 3.7 million acres of surface, along with 4.7 million acres of mineral lands.