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State Trust Lands:
state trust land reform

Our Position: oppose
Bill Number: SB1077
Sponsor: Nelson
Legislative Session: 2009 Legislative Session

It identifies specific lands to be conserved, but leaves out key lands, including near Walnut Canyon, Orroyo Grande, lands near Oracle, and the Rincon Valley lands, among others.  It also restricts the use of impact fees for acquiring lands, among many other issues.  The definition of conservation in this is the same as in SCR1030  and is very weak – it merely means restricting the use of the land against development.  If you then read the definition of development, it does not include a lot of things that can harm the conservation values of the land.  Not considered development are:  utility lines and associated facilities, canals, roadways, etc.  It requires payment of damages for nonrenewal of leases on lands that are transferred for conservation.  It is hard to believe how this could be in the interest of the trust or the entities that are trying to conserve the land and only serves the narrow interests of the lessees.  Lease renewals are not automatic, nor should they be.  It requires them to consider the “actual amount of economic damage to the production unit caused by the failure to renew,” which means they have to look at the entire operation.  Ridiculous.


To read the strike everything amendment and a more detailed status of the bill, click on SB1077.

Action Needed

To email your state senator or to find his/her direct phone number, click on senators, then click on their email addresses to send an emails.  You will also see their phone numbers there.  If you are not sure who your senator is, please go to http://www.vote-smart.org or call the Senate information desk.  If you're outside the Phoenix area, you can call your legislators’ offices toll free at 1-800-352-8404.  In the Phoenix area call (602) 926-3559 (Senate) and ask them to connect you with your legislators.


Sandy Bahr at (602) 253-8633 or sandy.bahr@sierraclub.org


Background on State Trust Lands

Arizona retains over 9.2 million acres of state trust land, the remainder of the more than 10 million acres originally given to the state by the United States government upon statehood and entry into the union.  State trust lands are held in permanent trust, with children in our public school system as the primary beneficiary.  Universities, state hospitals and other state institutions also are named as minor beneficiaries.  The trust lands must, in accord with the Arizona State Constitution, be managed to produce economic benefit for the beneficiaries. 

Despite that mandate, much of the land – 8.4 million acres – is under grazing leases and generates as little as 25-30 cents per acre.  Arizona’s grazing fees are among some of the lowest in the West and until recently there was little competition for these leases.  In response to an important 2001 Arizona Supreme Court decision, the State Land Department awarded the first grazing lease to a conservation lessee (Forest Guardians), so it could work on restoring the land.  The decision said, "...restoration and preservation are already and must continue to be considered legitimate uses for land that, according to the Commissioner's classification, has no higher and better use than grazing.  Otherwise, grazing lessees could continue to graze stock until the land is damaged and its value destroyed."  This decision represents important recognition of conservation by the courts.  Forest Guardians paid more than double the amount offered originally by the existing rancher lessee.  This represents a shift that could in time both increase revenues and lessen the degradation of the land, if the State Land Department would ever even accommodate them slightly.

In addition to grazing leases, state trust land is held for commercial leases, oil and gas leases, use permits, rights-of-way, and agricultural leases.  Approximately 3,000 to 5,000 acres of state trust lands are sold each year. 

Revenues from state trust lands go into both a permanent and an expendable fund.  The expendable fund consists of lease revenues, penalties and sales interest, and investment income generated by the permanent fund.  The expendable fund revenues are then divided among the beneficiaries and distributed.  The revenues from sales, royalties on minerals and natural products, etc. go into the permanent fund, which is invested and managed by the State Treasurer. 

State trust lands currently provide a very small percentage of the annual funding for public education.  However, it is a dedicated source of revenues and therefore important.  After recent changes, any dollars that are generated above the FY2001 levels (about $72 million) go into the Classroom Site Fund, which helps with teacher salaries as well as other programs. 

State Trust Lands – Reform Efforts and Need

As Arizona’s population continues to grow and as sprawling development eats up more and more land, the state trust lands’ value as open space, recreational land, and wildlife habitat, becomes even more important.  At the same time, state trust lands have been (until recently) under increasing pressure for development, through lease or sale to the private sector.

Conservation advocates have been working to promote conservation of state trust lands for more than a decade.  In the early and mid 1990’s, they sponsored Conservation of State Trust Land Conferences and worked with the legislature and former Governor Symington on the Arizona Preserve Initiative (API).  The API allows for limited conservation of certain state trust lands, but it has come under fire and been questioned on constitutional grounds, so its future is uncertain without additional constitutional language to accommodate it.

In the late 1990’s some conservation interests worked at the legislature to get a “Growing Smarter” proposal that would provide funding for state trust land protection.  This, like most legislative measures contained some poison pill language relative to growth management.  Nonetheless, the legislature referred the measure and it passed on the ballot.  It provides funding for conservation of state trust lands.

In 2000, the legislature came back with another referral, but this time conservation groups were nearly unanimous in their opposition to it.  This measure identified some specific lands for conservation, but included a three percent cap and focused primarily on mountain tops and some washes.  The voters rejected this measure. 

In 2001, conservation interests and later a broad-based group of stakeholders began working to develop a comprehensive state trust land reform measure.  The goal of the participants was to develop ballot initiative language for 2002, but later shifted to 2004 when it became clear that critical issues could not be addressed in time for the 2002 ballot.  The measure started out as a proposal to conserve land while protecting the trust.  It soon became a “Christmas tree” proposal that was very complicated and included significant giveaways to developers and ranchers.  Land exchanges, automatic renewal of grazing leases, and other giveaways were included in the package.  Some conservation interests and many legislators had major concerns with the package and it did not move forward in the 2004 session.

Subsequent to this second failed attempt at the legislature, some of the proponents of the 2004 “Christmas tree” package finally began to look at an initiative for the 2006 ballot and were successful in gathering the signatures and referring it.  The Legislature also referred a ballot measure, so there were competing measures - Propositions 105 and 106.  Proposition 105 was referred to the ballot by the legislature merely to counter Proposition 106.  While the Sierra Club was neutral on the initiative (Prop106), we did not think it was appropriate for the Legislature to try and confuse voters in order to defeat it.  Both measures failed. 

In 2008, conservation interests came together around a ballot measure that would have been Proposition 103, but it did not make the ballot as it did not have enough signatures, according to the Secretary of State.  There was consensus support on this measure, so it was a huge blow to see it not make the ballot.

This measure protected some key state trust lands in Arizona, including foothills areas in the Superstition Mountains, lands that are key to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, the Tortolita Fan and Tumamoc Hill in southern Arizona, plus lands near the San Pedro River.  In northern Arizona, it protected state trust lands next to the Walnut Canyon National Monument as well as lands in the headwaters of the Verde River, among others.  Overall, the citizen initiative would have protected 570,000 acres, plus left the door open for future conservation of state trust lands.  That provision was key to the Sierra Club’s support and critical to protecting areas and providing for our communities in the future.

It also made it possible to implement the Arizona Preserve Initiative, a measure that has long had bipartisan support and that, if implemented, can protect many important lands on the urban fringe of our communities, thus helping to mitigate urban sprawl.  Unfortunately, the Arizona Preserve Initiative has never been fully implemented.

Arizona is filled with amazing lands containing precious cultural and natural resources.  There is no greater legacy that we can leave for this and future generations of children than to conserve some of these lands.  Unfortunately, once again, the bills before the legislature do not do that.

 State Trust Lands - Exchanges

The 2004 General Election ballot included Proposition 100, a measure to change the constitution to allow the state to trade state trust lands.  This measure was defeated.  Arizonans have rejected various land exchange proposals six times since 1990.  The Legislature has not given up on land exchanges, however, and have included them again in the strike everything amendment on SCR1030.  They should just respect the voters and take “no” for an answer on this issue.  There are other ways to accomplish land management objectives.  Land exchanges nearly always result in the public getting ripped-off, plus they only exacerbate the urban sprawl in places such as Phoenix, Tucson, and Prescott.  If indeed a land exchange is deemed necessary, then the best way to approach it would be to name the specific lands to be exchanged – on both ends of the exchange.  They should also go through a strong public review process prior to any exchange moving forward.


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