The State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, currently manages over three million acres of land. Although not technically public, these trust lands are generally open for biking, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities. On October 19th, over 3,500 acres of trust lands across the state were sold at auction, generating over $6 million for Utah schools. Areas that were formerly open for outdoor recreation are now closed.
“My concern, though, is that those lands can now not be accessed," said Dr. Joshua Lenert, who works in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Utah. "Forget whether you’re a hunter or an angler, even if you ride bicycles or you ride ATVs, you’re now barred from those lands. From my perspective, the loss of access is significant.”
These trust lands were set aside by Congress when Utah became a state in 1896. The purpose is to generate revenue for public institutions like reservoirs, hospitals and schools.
“The state has a fiscal responsibility to manage its books every year, and so unlike the federal government which is allowed to carry a deficit, the state can’t," said Lenart, who also serves as a board member for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. We’ve had a few windfall years, but should that pendulum ever swing back, SITLA would be one of the primary organizations responsible for raising money to largely fund public education.”
An overwhelming majority of Utahns - over 90% - have reported recreating in the outdoors on a regular basis, and almost half are active hunters or anglers. On the other hand, Utah spends less on K-12 students than any other state in the nation. Some have suggested increasing the taxes on oil and gas production on the trust lands, which is only at a rate of a third of other western states like Wyoming and Montana, would improve revenue without selling the lands off outright. Any way you look at it, the conversation about public lands in the West is a complicated one, with many factors to consider.