State Trust Lands

Balancing Public Value and Fiduciary Responsibility
Andy Laurenzi, July 1, 2004

In June 2003 the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Sonoran Institute established a Joint Venture project to assist diverse audiences in improving state trust land administration in the American West. The goal of this partnership project is to ensure that conservation, collaborative land use planning, and efficient and effective asset management on behalf of state trust land beneficiaries are integral elements of how these lands are managed. The two institutes seek to utilize their core competencies to broaden the range of information and policy options available to improve state trust land management. This article introduces the Joint Venture and describes some of the work now under way in Arizona and Montana.

State trust lands are a phenomenon that dates back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. With this ordinance, the U.S. Congress established a policy of granting land to states when they entered the Union as an asset to generate funding to support the public education system, a fundamental state responsibility. Starting with Ohio in 1785 and ending with Arizona and New Mexico in 1910, each new state received a set of federal lands that, under federal enabling legislation and the corresponding state constitution, were to be held in trust for the benefit of the public schools. The trust mandates established by the U.S. Congress and the states are clear: to generate revenue to support the public schools and other institutions. In some cases there are other minor institutional beneficiaries as well, but the public schools (K–12) are by far the largest beneficiary throughout the state trust land system. That singularity of purpose continues today and distinguishes state trust lands and the state programs that administer them from other types of public lands.

While Congress intended state trust lands to be perpetual, the lawmakers expected that over time some lands would be sold to produce revenue. Initially Congress provided little guidance to states on how they should manage their state trust lands. Many states that entered the Union soon after 1785 quickly sold all or most of those lands for profit, and today little remains of that heritage. Because of these actions, Congress placed increasingly stringent requirements on new states in order to limit the use of state trust lands. Since most western states entered the Union in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they retain most of the original state trust lands designated at the time of statehood.

Today these lands continue to be managed to generate income for the authorized beneficiaries. This revenue is either made available in the year in which it was generated (typically from leasing activities) or, in the case of outright sale of land or nonrenewable resources, deposited into a permanent fund that generates annual income for the beneficiaries. In Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming these permanent funds or endowments are in excess of one billion dollars each.

What Is a Trust?

A trust is a legal relationship in which one party holds property for the benefit of another.

There are three participants in this relationship: a grantor or “settlor,” who establishes the trust and provides the property to be held in trust; a trustee, who is charged by the settlor with the responsibility of managing the trust in keeping with the settlor’s instructions; and a beneficiary, who receives the benefits of the trust.

The trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the property held in trust (the trust corpus) in keeping with the instructions of the settlor and for the benefit of the beneficiary. This fiduciary responsibility can be enforced by the beneficiary if the trustee fails to meet the obligations outlined in the trust documents.

Fifteen western states continue to own and manage appreciable amounts of state trust land (see Table 1). The nine states with the largest and most significant holdings are the initial focus of the Lincoln Institute and Sonoran Institute Joint Venture: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming (see Figure 1). Collectively these states manage more than 40 million acres of state trust lands. The landholdings are as diverse as the states that manage them and include coastal forests in Washington, mountaintops in Montana and low deserts in Arizona.

Traditionally these lands have been managed almost exclusively for natural resource production, with the leasing and sale of natural products being the principal sources of revenue. The reliance of state trust land management on natural resource extraction is understandable in the context of the natural resource–based economies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But today, as the West continues to urbanize and the region’s economies shift to the information age, trust land managers are recognizing a need to broaden the land use activities of their trust land portfolios. Invariably that means rearranging the portfolio from one that is overly reliant on natural resource extraction to one that recognizes the real estate value associated with commercial, industrial and residential development, as well as recreation and conservation.

Like many land use decisions, particularly in areas experiencing explosive growth, state trust land administration is increasingly controversial. As on federal public lands, traditional uses (i.e., cropland, grazing and timber production, and oil, gas, coal and mineral extraction) are at odds with public interests in recreation and natural open space. Efforts to sell and lease lands for commercial and residential development can create tensions between a state agency acting as a trustee and a local community vested with managing growth. Balancing the protection of the public values inherent in many of these lands with traditional and new uses, all within the context of the state trust’s fiduciary responsibilities, is a challenge for trust land managers.

At the same time, population pressures in the West have increased demands on public education funding. State trust lands are one obvious source of revenue to meet these funding demands, which in turn may generate even more pressure on trust land managers who as trustees of a permanent trust need to achieve both short- and long-term financial returns from the trust’s assets. An additional complexity is that the application of trust principles varies among the states, based in part on differing state trust land enabling legislation created in each state at the time of statehood.

Recognizing the value of bringing diverse interests together and providing solid information to stakeholders and key decision makers in land use planning and development environments, the Lincoln Institute and Sonoran Institute Joint Venture project seeks to

  • facilitate efforts to modernize state trust land laws and regulations in key western states
  • foster education and research efforts that focus on key issues related to state trust land administration
  • increase public awareness of the resource and economic values of state trust lands along with the impacts of state trust land management decisions on local communities, including implications for public finance
  • develop and implement on-the-ground model projects designed to explore innovative approaches to collaborative land use planning and conservation management of state trust lands
  • provide relevant technical information and tools to decision makers and agency staff involved in state trust land management.

Trust Land Reform in Arizona

Arizona is in the midst of a three-year discussion among diverse stakeholders to reform its laws governing state trust lands. Arizona is noteworthy because the burgeoning growth of Phoenix and Tucson is reaching significant tracts of state trust lands. These lands are some of the most valuable real estate holdings in the Intermountain West and comprise 12 percent of the land in the state. Unlike many other western states, Arizona has long recognized the real estate value of its holdings and has an active real estate disposition program that has sold thousands of acres into the urban marketplace. The revenue from these sales has been deposited into the permanent fund of the state trust entity, and the income from the fund is directed to the trust’s beneficiaries. The permanent fund is now valued at more than one billion dollars and is predicted to double in value over the next 10 years.

In the mid-1990s state trust land sales in metropolitan Phoenix came to a screeching halt when the development interests of the Arizona State Land Department encountered conflict with the goals of local communities interested in preserving some of this land as natural open space. Attempts to accommodate local concerns through state legislation have met with mixed results due to the strictures of the Arizona enabling act and state constitution. Several key court decisions interpreting these laws have constrained the Arizona State Land Department from conserving open space or enabling the department to achieve the highest and best use on these lands when sold or leased for residential and commercial purposes. An attempt in 2000 to secure voter approval to revise aspects of Arizona’s constititution and modernize state trust land management failed at the ballot box in the face of unanimous opposition from the conservation community.

This situation has set the stage for a diverse group of interests to convene in the hopes of developing a comprehensive reform proposal that the Arizona legislature and governor’s office will consider. Even with their support, the final package will need voter approval to amend the state constitution, followed by changes in the federal enabling act that will require the approval of the U.S. Congress.

The Joint Venture directed its initial efforts toward working with the conservation organizations participating in the stakeholder group. We provided analyses of the current laws and proposed changes, with assistance from the law firm of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, to help the conservation community promote a constructive agenda that has been incorporated into the package. In addition, our information related to land use planning was useful to other stakeholders in developing elements of the package that will ensure more collaborative planning between the Arizona State Land Department and local governments charged with land planning responsibility, while also increasing the range of tools available to local communities to protect natural open space on state trust lands.

We are also working with officials from the City of Tucson (the second largest city in Arizona) and the Arizona State Land Department to assist their efforts to develop 10,000 acres in the city’s growth corridor. This Houghton Area Master Plan includes more than 7,500 acres of state trust lands. Our work is directed toward the planning effort by providing examples of smart growth development at the urban edge. A key element is to document evidence that greenfield projects are not necessarily synonymous with sprawl and that a number of examples of recent master-planned communities at the urban edge are incorporating smart growth elements, such as interconnected open space for active and passive recreational use, pedestrian orientation, mixed-use development accessible to public transit, and a diverse mix of housing types, sizes and prices. As important, these progressive master-planned communities are achieving success in the marketplace, which is a preeminent concern of the Arizona State Land Department.

While the City of Tucson, in partnership with the Sonoran Institute, is working to promote infill and brownfield development, even under the most optimistic of scenarios more than 50 percent of the city’s explosive growth will be greenfield development. If successful, this master-planning effort will guide development on 50 square miles of state trust lands within the city and can serve as a local land use planning model for other state trust lands.

Trust Lands in Montana

The Joint Venture has also initiated an assessment of policy issues affecting state trust lands in Montana. Working with a local advisory group chartered by the Department of Natural Resources (the manager of Montana’s state trust lands), we have provided information that will help guide land use planning on 12,000 acres of state trust lands in Flathead County at the gateway to Glacier National Park. This effort will serve as a template for future department plans for land uses other than grazing and forest management. For example, the department has shown an interest in generating revenue from leasing land for conservation, recreational, residential, commercial and industrial uses. Increasing interest in these “special uses” is creating a paradigm shift in how the Department of Natural Resources interacts with local governments and how local governments interact with state trust lands.

As growth expands throughout much of western and central Montana, the department seeks to capture additional revenue opportunities through the development of special uses. While local communities are recognizing that state trust lands can be a source of economic growth and can contribute positively to meeting growth demands, they are also requiring those land uses to be responsive to local community values and concerns. Sound, objective land planning and valuation information are essential to the development of policies that will guide Montana state trust land management in the future.

Final Comments

In the brief time since the Joint Venture was established there has been no shortage of issues that could benefit from better information and collaboration among diverse parties. This fall the Lincoln Institute and the Sonoran Institute will convene a small group of experts from academia and the public and private sectors to identify the issues of greatest concern that will guide further research efforts. Our work in Arizona and Montana will continue as we seek to develop a broad-based approach to increasing awareness about state trust lands. The successful resolution of the issues affecting state trust land management will benefit not only local school children, but also many conservationists, developers, ranchers and businesses throughout the West.


Souder, Jon, and Sally K. Fairfax. 1996. State trust lands: History, management and sustainable use. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Andy Laurenzi is the program director for state trust lands at the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit organization established in 1990 to bring diverse people together to accomplish shared conservation goals. The Sonoran Institute is based in Tucson, Arizona, with offices in Phoenix and Bozeman, Montana (