At Lincoln House March 2015

Conserving State Trust Lands

States are obligated to generate income from state trust lands, through mining, grazing, agriculture, or logging, but a new report published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy shows how conservation can be an equally robust revenue source.

State trust land management agencies are poised to make better use of conservation mechanisms including conservation sales and leases through easements or outright fee-simple purchases, ecosystems services markets, and land tenure and exchange, according to the Policy Focus Report Conserving State Trust Lands: Strategies for the Intermountain West,co-authored by Susan Culp and Joe Marlow.

The report, the product of Western Lands and Communities, a joint program of the Lincoln Institute and the Sonoran Institute, is being unveiled at the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute's 24th annual conference Western Places, Western Spaces: Building Fair & Resilient Communities, in Denver March 12-13, 2015. It will be featured in a moderated session on land management for long term sustainability including Tobin Follenweider of the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners, Genevieve Johnson of Desert Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and Culp, formerly a project manager at the Sonoran Institute, and now principal at Next West Consulting, LLC.

At each state's inception, Congress granted lands to each state for the purpose of supporting public institutions, primarily K-12 public schools. Eighty-five percent of the remaining 46 million acres of these state trust lands held in trust for these beneficiaries are concentrated in the West.

Conserving State Trust Lands, available in print and by free download,explores current and recommended strategies to achieve conservation of state trust lands with ecological and environmental value, while maintaining the trust obligation to earn revenue for K-12 schools and other beneficiaries.

State trust lands are an often misunderstood category of land ownership in the U.S. According to Stephanie Sklar, CEO of the Sonoran Institute, "Revenue generation and land conservation are frequently viewed as being at odds; however, this latest report delves into how conservation of trust lands can be compatible with the trust responsibility of revenue generation."

"Improving conservation methods will provide new opportunities for the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners to fulfill its dual mission of producing reasonable and consistent income and providing sound stewardship for trust beneficiaries," said Tobin Follenweider, the deputy director of the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners.

The Lincoln Institute's first Policy Focus Report on state trust lands, State Trust Lands in the West: Fiduciary Duty in a Changing Landscape (2006), and a companion website, State Trust Lands, served as a primer on the issue: how much land each state holds in trust; the type of revenue generating activities conducted on trust lands; who the beneficiaries are; and the annual revenue generated and distributed to the beneficiaries.

Building on that work, authors Culp and Marlow evaluate the pros and cons of the conservation mechanisms that are currently available to state trust land management agencies, including conservation sales and leases through easements or outright fee-simple purchases, contributory value and nonmonetary value, ecosystems services markets, and land tenure and exchange. They also offer recommendations for new methods to realize revenue from conservation activity. Key recommendations are to:

  • Expand the use of conservation sales and leases
  • Improve the utility of contributory value in the master planning process
  • Increase access to ecosystem services markets; and
  • Streamline the land tenure adjustment process, which includes reform of the appraisal process.

Monetizing conservation will provide opportunities for land management agencies to pursue conservation options. All state trusts carry the mandate to fund beneficiaries in perpetuity, indicating the need for sustainable land management practices.

Municipal fiscal health

The future prospects for cities worldwide has a foundation in something that doesn't always get much talked about: municipal fiscal health. That was the message delivered by Lincoln Institute President George W. McCarthy in an appearance at the USC Price School of Public Policy earlier this month.

The basic covenant of funding local government for services and infrastructure has gone awry, he said, saddling cities with debt and plummeting some, most famously Detroit, into bankruptcy. "We have to ... rebuild the understanding in the general population of the role of local government and why it is necessary and good to pay taxes, or otherwise the provision of public goods would not happen," McCarthy said.

Noting that from 1980 to 2010, there was an average of seven municipal Chapter 9 bankruptcy filings per year, McCarthy said that "very often insolvency today is the result of poor planning that was done 40 years ago." Cities must manage around unpredictable federal and state government mandates beyond their control - for example changes made at the state level on how to redistribute sales tax money.

In the long term, public debt almost always accumulates in the under-maintenance of infrastructure, which has dire consequences. The United States already has an estimated $3.6 trillion demand for infrastructure maintenance, with global estimates at $17 to $40 trillion.

The urban growth seminar was covered by USC News, including a video of the presentation in full. The Lincoln Institute has been increasingly active on the topic of municipal fiscal health, including research related to Detroit's bankruptcy and the role of the property tax. Fellows will be presenting later this week at a major conference in Brazil, the International Conference on Sustainable Strategies for Local Revenue Mobilization: Public and Private Sector Perspectives, and next month as well at Fiscal Leadership and the Modern City at the Initiative on Cities at Boston University.

Odds & Ends

More on Maine's plan to tax nonprofits, and the alternative of payments in lieu of taxes ... What tactical urbanism can and can't do for your city... In Hartford, zoning at odds with home-buying sharing-economy style, the wave of future for both millennials and boomers ... Viva gentrification, says this commentator in Los Angeles... As Boston ponders property tax breaks for a convention center hotel, required reading is our report Rethinking Property Tax Incentives for Business ... Plan now for meaningful open space in urbanizing China, says Thomas M. Paine, author of Cities with Heart - echoing a similar message in our book Planet of Cities ... The possible mathematical - and biological - basis for good design ... This month's highlighted working paper: The Global Reach of Land Trust Organizations by Kingsbury Browne Fellow Peter Stein.

— ANTHONY FLINT, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

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