Contacts - State Trust Lands

Summer Waters
Western Lands and Communities
Program Director
602-393-4310, ext. 309

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 Western Lands and Communities web-based informational resource to support the exchange of ideas surrounding the management of state trust lands.

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Banner photos courtesey of: Desert Ridge Marketplace; Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments; Diana Rhodes; Matt Stout; Montana Department of Natural Resources & Conservation - Trust Land Management Division; New Mexico State Land Office; NormaLee McMichael.

Home Where We Work Westwide Program & Projects State Trust Lands

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State Trust Land Program Area

Asset Management
Conservation Tools and Strategies
Renewable Energy Development on State Trust Lands
Sustainable Real Estate Development on State Trust Lands

State trust lands are a unique category of lands granted by the federal government to states upon entering the Union to support vital public institutions, such as schools. The square mile sections were granted in a regular pattern, where available, in each state with the direction that the proceeds from the sale of the lands be used to generate revenue for public education and other essential institutions. Many states divested themselves of these lands quickly without leaving a lasting benefit to the schools. As a result, states admitted to the Union later had tighter restrictions placed on their state trust land grants to ensure that the lands would be available to support the beneficiaries in perpetuity.


There are approximately 38.5 million surface acres of state trust land in the Intermountain West, located in both rural and urban areas. The management of these lands is governed by a fiduciary trust responsibility. Because of the vast state trust land holdings throughout the West, their role in shaping growth and development patterns and on the integrity of large-scale, ecologically intact landscapes is significant.

Western Lands and Communities seeks to assist state trust land managers in meeting their fiduciary duty in the changing West by broadening the range of land-use information, tools, and policy options available for the long-term, sustainable management of state trust lands. The project's goal is to enhance the value of the trust for its beneficiaries by fostering better planning and implementation of residential and commercial development on state trust lands and by increasing the amount of state trust land in conservation use.

For more information on state trust lands please visit Western Lands and Communities web-based informational resource, designed to support the exchange of ideas surrounding the management of state trust lands.

State Trust Land Projects in the West

The Western Lands and Communities program has been working on state trust land issues in the Intermountain West since the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Sonoran Institute joint venture began in 2004. Building new tools and policies to improve state trust land management in the region was the original focus and catalyst for forming the joint venture partnership between the organizations, and remains a core element of the program for Western Lands and Communities. In 2010, a three-year research agenda on issues relevant to state trust land managers in the West was developed and has informed the project work for the past two years. The research agenda focused on fourmain research tracks:

Asset Management

State trust land management agencies across the west are at various stages in pursuing long-term asset management strategies. In May of 2013, the Western Lands and Communities program convened a research roundtable on asset management for state trust lands to gather experts in new and emerging markets, land and resource valuation and appraisal, and asset management for long term investment portfolios together with Intermountain West state trust land managers interested in new approaches and methods of valuing long term asset potential. Additionally, some of the state agencies shared some of their first hand knowledge in a peer sharing session.

Additionally, the participants discussed further topics of interest for research and investigation to create new or improved tools for trust land managers to pursue long range asset management and planning. Western Lands and Communities will develop a research agenda to direct investments into those lines of inquiry that will add value to trust land managers long term planning efforts. Visit the Asset Management Research Roundtable webpage for all event materials, presentations, and supplemental reading.

Conservation Tools and Strategies

State trust lands are not managed as public lands that are freely open for recreational purposes and serving a conservation and open space mission – rather they have specific public beneficiaries and must be managed to provide revenue for those purposes. However, there are significant state trust lands that have considerable ecological and scenic values. Many communities treasure these lands for their open space, wildlife habitat, and recreational qualities, and would like to see them conserved for those purposes.

Western Lands and Communities has explored potential conservation tools and strategies that could be used by trust land managers or community stakeholders to identify and conserve environmentally important trust lands while still meeting the fiduciary obligations of the trust. Some of these tools include:

  • Land tenure adjustment – transactions that would enable trust lands with high open space, recreational or ecological value to be exchanged with federal public lands appropriate for development. This would allow trust land to be managed for their conservation values, while providing the trust with alternative lands that can support the beneficiaries.
  • Ecosystem services markets – transactions that would allow the conservation management of ecologically valuable state trust lands while generating revenues for the beneficiaries through the provision of those ecosystem services.
  • Contributory value – accounting of value through a large-scale master plan development process by which open space conservation could take place and be "paid for" by the increased economic value of adjacent parcels resulting from the open space designation.

Research continues in these fields, and will ultimately be compiled into a final report planned for release in 2014.

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Renewable Energy Development on State Trust Lands

The recent energy boom, particularly in the renewable sector, has created new opportunities for siting energy generation facilities, both wind and large-scale solar, and transmission corridors on public lands in the West. State trust land managers are also exploring how this type of development could be a new source of revenue generation on appropriate trust lands, while also grappling with the challenges that these large-scale land uses bring.

The Western Lands and Communities program has a research track underway that is focusing on renewable energy development on state trust lands. Current research is identifying case studies of successful renewable energy generation and transmission projects, as well as exploring the economic incentives, policies, and fiscal structures that encourage the renewable energy sector and how those can affect the ability of state trust land managers to attract these types of revenue generating uses on their holdings.

Sustainable Real Estate Development on State Trust Lands

Interest in real estate development in the Intermountain West has waned in recent years due to the recession and slow residential and commercial real estate activity. However, the West is likely to continue to grow once the economy recovers – and this slow period can be used to continue developing best practices and models for sustainable smart growth on state trust lands that reduces environmental impacts and carbon footprint, and encourage the adoption of those models within state land agencies in advance of the next development boom.

Superstition Vistas – a 275 square mile state trust land parcel in Arizona that has been planned for residential and commercial development over a 50-year time horizon – remains a key Western Lands and Communities demonstration project for sustainable smart growth on state trust lands. Read more about the Superstition Vistas project.

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News and Updates

Asset Management Research Roundtable - Western Lands and Communities convened a research roundtable on asset management for state trust lands in April 2013 to bring together experts in asset management for long term investment portfolios, ecosystem service market professionals, and state trust land managers interested in new approaches and methods of valuing long term asset potential. Learn more about the research roundtable and download meeting presentations and associated recommended reading.


Cashing in on Conservation in Colorado - In the spring 2012 report, Analysis of Ecosystem Services Potential on Colorado State Trust Lands, Sonoran Institute and partners explored ecosystems services potential on Colorado state trust lands for the Colorado State Land Board. The board is moving forward on a number of tangible projects that promise to help it achieve its goal of producing $10 million in conservation revenue by 2016. Read more.