Public Lands play an important role in Utah’s physical and political landscape—but who decides what will happen on each piece of that land? While many are familiar with organizations like the Bureau of Land Management, SITLA—or the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration—is a lesser-known office that plays an important role in the distribution and use of land in Utah. Their mission is to hold in trust and manage certain state lands for the benefit of public education, and their actions have far-reaching implications. Mike Johnson, the Chief Legal Counsel for SITLA, recently joined Clyde Snow’s Emily Lewis on The Ripple Effect to discuss his work with the organization.
Every state admitted to the union after about 1800 received a grant of land from the federal government to support public education. By the late 1800s, congress started to put more express restrictions and prescriptions into what these lands had to be used for (specifically the support of public school systems). Utah’s enabling act specifies four sections of land (ten percent of the land mass of the township) to be held in trust for public schools. Since Utah is a public land state with a fairly high proportion of federal ownership, the land dedicated to public education takes from the federal government’s allotted land and puts it back in the hands of the state in the form of trusts.
For most of Utah’s history, these state lands were managed by the Division of State Lands and Forestry. In 1994, however, the legislature created SITLA as a separate independent entity from DNR to emphasize a singular focus on managing school trust lands. This separation also helps insulate the contribution of funding to the schools from the ups and downs of the economy and real estate.
SITLA’s job is to manage the land in such a way that funds their beneficiaries—predominantly K-12 schools but some higher education organizations as well. Revenue groups within the organization (including the energy and mineral, real estate development, and surface divisions) are all tasked with researching, planning, and overseeing different activities that generate revenue such as leasing, selling, granting easements, real estate development projects, and anything else for which specific land might be suitable to generate revenue for the permanent school fund. That fund is then invested by Treasurer’s Office with distributions made over time to schools and other beneficiaries.
Right now, SITLA is currently involved in a number of renewable energy projects. While they are an entity set up to manage trust land for a restricted category of beneficiaries, not the public at large, their market-driven and independent nature allows them to take advantage of environmentally forward opportunities without getting caught in bureaucratic red tape. Right now, they are targeting lands for acquisition that will be useful for solar energy development, geothermal development, and more.
To learn more about SITLA, read about their mission and projects at https://trustlands.utah.gov/.
— Haley Kendall