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Bears Ears Monument Could Impact Funding For Schools From Trust Lands


The announcement by President Obama to designate Bears Ears National Monument has the board of trustees that oversees School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration or SITLA wondering how trust lands within the boundaries of the monument can be used. More than 100,000 acres of non-public school trust lands given to the state by the federal government to help finance public schools is located within the boundaries of the new monument.

“On the local level it is really tough because San Juan County, their school district, is concerned,” said Tim Donaldson.

As director of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands School Children’s Trust, Donaldson has been directed to find ways to use trust lands to make money to fund K-12 schools. The state provides grazing rights, leases areas of the lands for oil, gas and minerals extracting, and even sells some of the lands for private development. Most of these activities and uses are not in keeping with the national monument mandate.

“We saw this with Garfield and Kane counties and the Grand Staircase Monument,” Said Donaldson.  “When jobs dry up and there is not opportunity for lands to be privatized and put on the tax role and create employment it has negative impacts in those local areas that are hard to or impossible to mitigate.”

One year ago the Utah State Board of Education passed a federal and school trust land policy resolution calling for the U.S. Department of Interior to find ways to compensate Utah’s public schools when conservation designations are made. The state will continue to manage trust lands within the monument but Donaldson worries the designation renders trust lands there as inaccessible to developers. He said this could prevent the state from selling mineral leasing rights or discourage ranchers who would otherwise pay to graze on trust lands.

Some land managers claimed the federal government did not do enough to protect the trust lands during the creation of Utah’s five national parks. Prior to the Bears Ears designation Donaldson and the SILTA trustees asked department of interior officials to consider a land exchange or monetary compensation.

“It was kind of a scenario that led to tension between land managers,” he said. “Legally we can still auction lands off inside the Bear Ears Monument and really have a duty to do everything that we can to make money off of them. It tends to be a better solution if some kind of win-win compromise can be worked out, but the federal government, to date, has not been cooperative enough in providing fair, reasonable exchange alternatives that meet the standard of fiduciary conduct that the board of trustees is looking for”. 

The Bears Ears Monument Declaration calls for the interior department to report to congress by January 19th as to whether an arrangement can or should be made to compensate the state for trust lands within the boundaries of the monument.