SEATTLE — Checkerboarded across the landscape of the American West are thousands of parcels of state-owned land that collectively cover an area larger than North Dakota. They include vast swaths of forest and prairie, fracking wells, coal mines, luxury housing developments, parking lots, cell towers and solar panels.
Known as state trust lands, these parcels were given to Western states as they were admitted to the Union, setting them up with a long-term revenue stream to fund public services, primarily schools. Although the rules can vary by state, government officials generally have broad leeway to manage the lands to provide that education funding. Historically, that’s often come from timber harvesting, agriculture and grazing leases, and fossil fuel extraction.
In some states, though, those natural resource-based industries are no longer paying the bills. Some, including Wyoming and New Mexico, still rely on trust lands for a significant portion of their education budgets. Others, such as Washington, only get a fraction of their school funding from the land.
Land managers also are facing pressure from environmentalists who think the land’s value goes beyond its contributions to the state balance sheet. And as officials look to new revenue streams such as real estate development, they’re running into backlash from locals who feel the state’s plans to make money off its land conflict with the values of the surrounding communities.
Meanwhile, loggers and livestock ranchers who have long operated on state lands say shifting revenue models could devastate their industries and the rural communities that depend on their jobs.
Together, this leaves state land managers in the fast-growing West with a near-impossible needle to thread: providing steady funding for schools while protecting the environment and avoiding conflict with communities and industries that have their own ideas about how the land should be used.
“That struggle is real,” said Jason Crowder, deputy director of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments. “Every parcel of state land is an asset that needs to perform, because that’s what our mandate is, but we have to be sensitive to the local impacts and needs as well.”
Joel Webster, vice president for Western conservation with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said state officials are in an unenviable position as they try to make those choices.
“These decisions will impact groups that depend on these lands for their livelihood,” he said. “Housing developments are not so compatible with wildlife habitat, but we can’t dismiss the revenue they bring in. How can these lands be managed in a way that tries to address all these different concerns?”
But trust lands also are beginning to show promise as sites for wind and solar projects, which could allow states with such parcels to speed up their transition to clean energy. And in some cases, environmentalists and states have worked together in creative ways to conserve land for habitat and recreation, while at the same time preserving its purpose as a funding source for schools.