Happy 125th Birthday to Washington State Trust Lands

new high school in Ellensburg was built with aid of state trust land funds

In Fiscal Year 2013, DNR agricultural trust land leases grossed more than $20 million for Common School construction in Washington State. Recent projects include a new high school in Ellensburg.

This year, 2014, is the 125th anniversary of Washington’s joining the Union as the 42nd state. It’s a good time to reflect on the gift our state received from the federal government back in 1889: more than three million acres of trust lands – truly, a gift that keeps on giving!

Providing gifts of land to support institutions is a practice that dates back to the Middle Ages.

In the United States, as far back as 1785, every Section 16 in 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.

As new states joined the union, Congress provided land grants to each state, with the western states granted large numbers of acres. The federal Enabling Act of 1889 granted Washington State lands in Section 16 and 36 of every township, except where that section was already settled or encumbered. In addition to designating that lands in those sections be managed to benefit common schools, the Act granted the State additional lands to be managed for colleges, universities, prisons, and other institutions.

Each state could sell its granted lands, but Washington state chose to keep most of its 3 million acres of trust lands. Over the decades, the state further enhanced its trust land holdings by blocking up lands, developing irrigation for agricultural uses, and other steps to enhance the ability of these lands to generate revenue for trust beneficiaries.

Responsibilities and relationships

As trust land managers, DNR has a fiduciary duty to manage these lands with undivided loyalty to the trust beneficiaries, considering both current and future generations of beneficiaries. We also have a fiduciary duty to act prudently. For the agriculture and grazing leasing program, this means generating fair market value rents for land uses, while assuring the productivity of the land is protected and enhanced so benefits are provided in perpetuity.

Our leasing procedures define the relationship between DNR as trustee, and our lessees, who are the on-the-ground managers producing agricultural commodities that are the source of revenue for the trusts. We encourage progressive, ecologically sustainable agriculture and recognize the value and interconnectedness of the many systems on our lands including water, fish and wildlife habitat, and agricultural production. We work to create, maintain, and improve these systems in a way that assures the long term sustenance of both revenue for the trusts and healthy ecosystems.

DNR works to optimize income from land assets for trust beneficiaries consistent with acceptable risk and good management practices. We may change the land use of property to the “highest and best use” when the expected net lease revenues and asset values are substantially greater than those of the current use. We also may make or authorize capital investments on lands to enhance the income stream and asset value when those investments meet acceptable financial and risk criteria. Above all, we keep the beneficiaries’ interests in mind at all times by maintaining a broad and diversified land base and, when the transaction will benefit the trust, replacing the properties we dispose of.

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

For more information on trust lands, read State Trust Lands: History, Management, & Sustainable Use, Jon A. Souder and Sally K. Fairfax (1996). Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.