What Happened to all those School Trust Sections?

Surely you must have asked yourself, “What happened to all those school sections that were in the middle of a National Monument or Park?” The good news is that there is an answer.

When Utah came to the union, we agreed to not tax federal lands and the feds gave us school trust sections to help the educational process. The United States is divided into 36 square mile (sections) blocks called “townships.” These townships represented a 6X6 mile square piece of continuous ground. Of the 36 interior sections, some states were give one school section, others called “arid” states were given two sections while others including Utah were called “really arid” and so they were given four sections of every township to use for public school funding. These parcels were referred to as “land grants” and were offered to higher education, hospitals, and other public institutions in addition to public education. Each section contains 640 acres.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt and has been used by 16 presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama to designate national monuments. Only three presidents did not use the Act: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. The president can use the Antiquities Act to protect special natural, historical, and cultural areas as national monuments, change monument boundaries, direct resources toward monument management, and re-designate monuments as national parks.

Since most of these areas declared under the Antiquities Act contain School Trustlands that are harbored inside of a monument or national park that would lose their ability to support public education, they are traded out for tracts outside the park system for parcels of similar value on BLM or other federal land. In the recent Bears Ears Monument designation by President Obama, 109,000 acres of School Trustland were included in the boundaries. As a result, SITLA began the practice to exchange these lands for areas outside park boundaries. In this massive swap, it is possible for the state to end up with better parcels than they started but the reverse is also possible. With the threat of litigation and legislation over Bears Ears and a possible reduction of Escalante-Grand Staircase, this exchange may be on the shelf for a while.

Tracy Davis