There's a jack rabbit rustling through sagebrush on top of the sandy, black ridge where landscape stops and sky begins.

It's gray today, unusual for Utah's Dixie, and the hare props himself up on silky hind legs, turns his long ears north and nuzzles the wind.Below is the Cottonwood Wash. Now barren but for the heartiest brush and wildlife, Cottonwood Wash will soon be a blanket of churches, shops and houses that are part of a development wave expected to bring $75 million to Utah schoolchildren during the next decade.

The hare will have to find a new home.

A 500-pound gorilla is moving in.

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration has its hands in several Washington County development pots - and all promise to benefit the southwesternmost county in the Beehive State and pay big dividends toward schoolbooks and school buildings for Utah kids.

From atop a butte in the area locals know as the Black Ridge, the dramatic landscape stretches as far as the eye can see. It is unclear from here where land owned by the federal government stops and begins, which knolls and valleys belong to the trust lands administration and which belong to private property owners.

But maps of this area tell the tale: Because much of the area around St. George belongs to the federal Bureau of Land Management, much of the developable land left belongs to school trust lands administration.

"They certainly represent a lot of what's going on and a lot of what the future will bring down here," said Scott Hirschi, director of the Washington County Economic Development Council.

The trust lands role in development becomes more important now, as residential construction and the economy slow in Washington County.

As the "500-pound gorilla," trust lands officials are trying to play well with others; they're trying not to throw their weight around.

But at the same time, trust lands is newly committed to maximizing profits from their land, and that, sometimes, means playing hardball.

"We are definitely the hundred-pound gorilla in every one of these communities," said Ric McBrier, head of the trust lands administration's development division. "So it's a personal challenge for managers of trust lands to hear their visions and work together."

The school trust lands administration, in partnerships with out-of-state builders, is planning self-contained communities in three areas around St. George. The semipublic agency will lay curbs and gutters for an industrial park that will be vital to the manufacturing-deficient county. Officials are working seven development projects in all.

Most projects won't be done for several years. For now, Cottonwood Wash is home to dainty violet flowers and scrub brush, butterflies and cactus, downy mice and scaly lizards. Hard and soft in the same place.

That's the way it is with this place in Utah's corner. It's a land of contrasts: sharp and smooth, big and small together.

And that contrast poses the biggest challenge for the school trust lands administration, one of the largest landowners in the St. George area.

The agency must decide how it can best develop thousands of acres of precious Washington County land without coming off like the schoolyard bully.

So, in St. George, Washington, Ivins and Bloomington Hills, McBrier and his colleagues spend hours with local planners and mayors, plotting huge tracts of land.

They problem-solve.

They compromise.

They listen to the visions local officials have for the land many have known since birth.

"We are also finding projects that we can be involved in that help the community as well as the trust lands," McBrier said.

In one case, the city wanted to run a major sewer line toward Ft. Pierce Industrial Park but was asking a dozen private landowners to help pay the cost.

The landowners, who used septic tanks, put up a lot of the money but didn't have enough. Trust lands bumped up the size of the sewer line and pitched in $300,000 to benefit both parties.

The trust lands administration, which manages 3.7 million acres statewide for the benefit of Utah schools and other public institutions, has 100,000 of these acres in Washington County.

As a semipublic state agency, it has a lot of clout.

And it is powered by the emotional drive of its philosophical purpose: to make profit the best it can for Utah's schoolkids.

From Hurricane to Veyo to the brushy expanses near the Arizona border, the school trust lands administration owns tract after tract of property in Dixie. About 20,000 of those acres are right around St. George, woven through a region heavy with federal government tracts.

If all goes as planned, the trust lands will earn another 2,000 acres in Washington County as part of an historic land swap negotiated recently with the U.S. Department of Interior.

The trust lands division's power and credibility are growing and seven projects in and around St. George are moving forward:

- The Gateway Project: Just past the Wal-Mart Distribution Center, near the state road that links southern Utah with Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon beyond, the Cottonwood Wash will be the self-contained community known as "Gateway."

Trust lands officials have signed a letter of intent with the Phoenix builder SunCor to plan the area, which will include a resort hotel, a golf course, churches, trails, parks, open space, up to 3,500 homes and places to work, shop and play.

SunCor has built several similar projects in Sedona, Tucson and Santa Fe. The company will invest $15 million to start the project - building the golf course, some roads and design for some residential areas within the 1,500 acres.

The arrangement with SunCor is unique because the state agency will maintain some control and a "passive partnership" in the project, which trust officials predict will return $30 million to the trust over 15 years.

"We want to stay part owner," McBrier said. "Over the long haul this kind of arrangement will generate big returns for the trust."

- Gateway Industrial Park (Wal-Mart area): In the first arrangement of this kind, trust land officials last summer entered a joint venture with developer Perry and Associates Inc., and Fort Union Management Company to manage development on a 120-acre piece of industrial land adjacent to Walmart Distribution Center.

In this arrangement, Perry is paying to to upgrade the park, add infrastructure and subdivide the land.

- Texaco: Trust lands has signed a 50-year ground lease deal with a Texaco Star-Mart Service Station franchisee. Situated at Harrisburg Junction, off the state road that carries travelers to Hurricane and Lake Powell, the trust lands have been in this partnership for 20 months.

Texaco has done very well, and trust land's share of those sales profits amounted to $30,000 in 1997, said McBrier.

With several semitrailer trucks parking each day while their drivers rest, Texaco owners want to expand to a full service truck stop with showers, which means more money for the trust.

- Green Springs: The "Crown Jewel" of the trust lands southern Utah property is a 1,000-acre piece that is backed up to protected Deseret Tortoise habitat. Today, this land goes for about $10,000 an acre, and it is some of the most valuable land in southern Utah.

An important part of this development is construction of an interchange at milepost 13, in the northeast part of Washington. UDOT has planned and funded it already, and a developer has proposed a golf course and housing development on the rich ground.

- Fort Pearce Industrial Park - Washington County isn't perfect, and with all its beauty and livability, the little land left available for development is zoned for homes instead of manufacturing or industrial business.

And manufacturing - which would expand an economy reliant on service, tourism, construction and public education - needs a place to happen.

Enter the Fort Pearce Industrial Park. With 160 acres, trust lands has entered a partnership with St. George City, Dixie Escalante Rural Electric Association and developers Jennings, Gifford and Larkin to make $3.4 million in infrastructure improvements.

There is an immediate local demand for the land, and the trust has 10,000 acres next door the industrial park could grow into if necessary.

They'll start curb and gutter projects soon, and officials believe a vitamin plant and other current tenants will be the first to expand.

- Fossil Hill - The area adjacent to Fort Pearce Industrial Park is being planned as a housing subdivision for people with horses. It will serve as a residential buffer between the industrial park and more traditional single family areas nearby.

- North Valley - The trust lands has 700 acres in a valley running southwest from Bloomington Hills to I-15. The new high school and middle school complex will open here in the fall or winter of 1999.

McBrier is working with the city to plan a community with 1,500 houses that will feature open space and natural landscape as the primary amenity. It will have parks and its own trail system, which trust lands hope to connect to miles of city trails.

The administration has changed its staff and its philosophy to make these kinds of projects work. It has beefed up McBrier's development staff, which has increased returns. His staff brought in $250,000 in 1997, its first year. It will collect $2 million in the fiscal year that closes June 30.

Next year he and his colleagues are expected to bring in $5 million.

Gone are the days when the trust lands administration sold land for cheap and was satisfied to collect a few grazing fees here, a few mineral royalties there.

This is big business. The agency operates more like a private business and less like a bureaucracy, says agency director David Terry.

In his observations of development in Washington County, Hirschi notes the difference. "There is no question the policy changes trust lands have made over the last two years have been extremely beneficial. They are less intimidating and more user-friendly."

A look at trust land administration's books and accounts illustrates this change in philosophy.

In 1987, trust land accounts were worth about $20 million, but that amount escalated to $207 million at the end of March 1998.

An accounting change is responsible for some of the increase. In 1996, when State Treasurer Ed Alter began investing school trust lands money in stocks, school trust land officials began to record the "market value" as opposed to the "book value" of the lands, receivables, investments and improvements.

Still, the fund has doubled in just more than two years, which is good news for the public schools and institutions that can benefit from the investments long-term.

The administration wants its investments to be worth $1 billion by the end of 2020.

"The future is brighter than it's ever been for the trust lands," Hirschi said. "That's good for Washington County, and it's good for the state of Utah.

Tomorrow: Carving out a niche in the shadow of Nevada's gambling empire.