State trust lands: 125 years of building public schools for you

Ellensburg High School
Opened in 2005, the new Ellensburg High School was built partly with funds produced from state trust lands.

Last Tuesday, November 11, was the 125th anniversary of Washington statehood. Part of the legacy of gaining recognition as a state in 1889 is the three million acres of trust lands that the federal government transferred to Washington state. It’s a gift that continues to give back to Washington residents every day.

Providing gifts of land to support institutions dates to the Middle Ages in Europe. In the United States, as far back as 1785, Section 16 of each township was reserved as a “school section” to provide funding and a central location for schools, so no child would have to travel too far to school. (In the U.S. Public Land Survey System, survey townships are one-mile square; 36 sections equal one township.)

As new states joined the union, Congress provided land grants to each. The federal Enabling Act of 1889 granted Washington state lands in Section 16 and 36 of most townships. The majority of the sections granted to Washington state were designated to benefit public schools; additional lands were granted for building and supporting universities, prisons, and other institutions.

Responsibilities and relationships

While states receiving granted lands were allowed to sell them, a combination of legal restrictions, market forces and other issues led Washington state to keep most of its trust lands.

Over the decades, the state enhanced these holdings by trading and blocking up forestlands for more efficient management, developing irrigation for its agricultural lands, and taking other steps to enhance the ability of the trust lands to generate sustainable revenue over the long term. The beneficiaries of these lands — public schools, state universities and other institutions — received about $215.5 million from land leases and sales of timber and other products in fiscal year 2013, part of the billions of dollars produced since 1889 to support public institutions.

As a trust land manager, DNR has a fiduciary duty to manage these lands with undivided loyalty to the trust beneficiaries. We are obligated to consider both current and future generations of beneficiaries in our land management decisions. We also have a duty to act prudently to generate fair market value rents for land uses and bring forest, aquatic and other resources to market. As we do this, we protect and enhance the productivity of the lands so the benefits can be provided in perpetuity. We also encourage ecologically sustainable land uses that provide for clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, and agricultural and natural resource production. The goal is to assure healthy ecosystems and sustainable, long-term revenue for the trusts and their beneficiaries.

It’s exciting to be part of the century-plus legacy of state trust land management.

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