Mike Lee, SITLA director defend trust’s mission

If public schools benefit first, where does that leave everyone else?

david ure
SITLA Director David Ure defends his agency’s mission. Photo by Carter Pape

At a recent roundtable discussion concerning the topic of public lands, David Ure, the director of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, defended the land trust against criticism that its profit-seeking raison d’être was corrupting the wilderness areas it controls.

The discussion Friday, convened by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, focused on management of public lands in Utah. An all-Republican cast of federal, state and local representatives comprised the discussion, joined by state officials from various offices and departments.

Among Lee’s conversation starters: The difference between public lands and trust lands, specifically with regards to SITLA’s trust lands. Lee directed the question to Ure, who took the opportunity to clarify what SITLA is and does, and Lee later built on Ure’s response to highlight the difference between trust and public lands.

Ure defends SITLA as not being public land

After Lee then Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, provided opening statements to frame the discussion, Ure spoke next, addressing a question from Lee about what made lands owned by SITLA, a state institution, different from public lands.

Although Lee slightly muddled the idea of “public land” and “trust lands” as he posed the question, SITLA has historically been straightforward on the difference. On its website, in a frequently asked question section, it begins its answer thus, “Are trust lands public lands?” with a simple, “No.”

SITLA holds the title to 4.5 million acres of land throughout the State of Utah. The land is not public per se, although it is owned by a state institution. Instead, the land is titled to SITLA, which as its name suggests holds the land in a public trust, and it in turn leases and sells the land to generate revenue for public education in Utah.

The U.S. Congress deeded just over one in 20 acres of Utah’s land to SITLA when the state joined the Union. It chartered the trust to primarily support the public school system, to which roughly 95% of the fund’s total balance is dedicated.

Critics of SITLA say it is a pseudo-public institution with the responsibilities and government backing of a public agency and the profit motives of a land trust interested in, for example, oil drilling before wildlife protection.

“Despite boasts of largesse, SITLA’s contribution was just 1 to 2 percent of Utah’s education budget [in 2015,]” wrote Jen Ujifusa for a 2016 newsletter published by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Clearly, this system isn’t for kids. To ‘fund our schools’ we steal their wilderness and neglect to fund our schools.”

Despite recent increases in both its financial position and endowments to public education, SITLA’s contribution to K-12 education in Utah last year represented less than 2% of total expenditures by the state’s school districts.

Ure’s ‘rape-and-plunder’ gaffe

In his comments on Friday, Ure explained that, because SITLA has specific beneficiaries (all related to public education) and a charter to administer lands “prudently and profitably,” the mission of the trust is acutely different than the mission of public land managers such as the Bureau of Land Management or Utah State Parks.

“‘Beneficiaries’ does not mean the public as a whole,” Ure said, referring to the beneficiaries named in SITLA’s charter, the largest of which is Utah’s school districts.

Ure went on to say that he thought this idea of named beneficiaries rather than the general public was a common point of confusion for people. He added that it also contributed to an investing mindset for SITLA, as it is responsible to stakeholders for generating revenue on the land it holds.

“Is this piece of ground more valuable to my great-grandchildren 100 years from now as open space or whatever it might be?” Ure asked rhetorically. “Or do I capitalize today and build the trust fund up with the ability to invest it with some percent return? But we’re not just a rape-and-plunder organization.”

After a brief pause, Lee interrupted Ure, apparently to point out the ambiguity of his “rape and plunder” quip. The moment yielded laughter from the crowd and teasing nods of agreement from protestors, who were standing around the room, holding signs in support of public lands and against SITLA.

“Which are we?” Ure asked jokingly as he continued. “My point is, Senator: We have a responsibility to take care of the future as well as the present, and we try very hard to do that.”

Lee comes in for backup

Addressing protestors around the room holding signs, some of which advocated for keeping Utah’s “public lands in public hands,” Lee was careful to highlight the distinction between public lands and SITLA’s trust lands.

Lee said it was “absolutely true that the state relinquished the title” to public lands upon its entrance to the Union in 1896; federal legislation passed two years earlier had enabled Utah to enter the Union on the condition that the state give up the title to certain lands within the state’s boundaries, including to SITLA.

“But we have to remember that there was an understanding, at the time that some of that land in time would be sold or would be transferred, and that land that was sold would produce revenue that would go into a trust fund for the benefit of the state’s public education system,” Lee said.