Revenue Lost From Utah Monument Lamented
Utah school officials may go to court to recover up to $1.1 billion they say they lost with a stroke of President Clinton's pen.
When Mr. Clinton signed an executive order last month creating a national monument in the canyons in the southern part of the state, he claimed almost 200,000 acres of state-owned land that had been slated for coal mining, with the revenue going to benefit the state's schools.
State geologists estimated the mining leases would have yielded anywhere from $600 million to $1.1 billion for an education endowment.
"President Clinton chose to ignore his high public trust by unilaterally turning a huge part of our state into a national monument," Gov. Michael Leavitt of Utah, a Republican, said in a statement the day after Mr. Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the nation's largest.
Even though Mr. Clinton promised to swap other federal land to compensate the school fund and Congress last week told the U.S. Department of Education to propose a way to do that, state school officials aren't holding their breath and may file a lawsuit to get their money.
"We're still trying to get exchange of land" lost under previous executive orders, said Nate Taggart, a spokesman for the state's education office.
When Utah became a state 100 years ago, it struck a deal with the federal government: The state traded away its right to tax federal property in exchange for land the federal government put into a trust to pay public school expenses.
The state now has a $110 million endowment created from the sales of land and mining rights. The interest from the account helps fund local schools. Twenty-one other states, most of them west of the Mississippi River, have similar clauses in their charters.
Only an estimated 200,000 acres of the 3.7 million acres in Utah's school trust lands lie within the national monument Mr. Clinton created Sept. 19, but that land is probably the state's most valuable tract.
"It could be the richest known energy resource in North America," said David Hebertson, the spokesman for the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
Groups representing administrators, teachers, and parents are arguing that much of the trust land should not be included in the sprawling national monument.
Most of the canyons Mr. Clinton included in the monument already are protected as part of a national recreation area, according to the Utah Public Education Coalition, which includes the state education office, teachers' unions, and other interest groups.
What's more, the land owned by the school trust does not possess the natural beauty that led the rest of the region to be declared a national monument. "The Kaiparowits Coal Basin is composed of considerably less scenic terrain and is interlaced with many miles of country roads, an airstrip, an old coal mine, drill sites, and abandoned mine sites," the coalition wrote in a Sept. 10 letter to Mr. Clinton in a vain attempt to exclude the school's trust land from the national monument.
Last week, the coalition was still trying to decide whether to file a suit against the federal government seeking reimbursement for the land, according to Linda Parkinson, the president of the Utah PTA.
Meanwhile, Congress instructed U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to meet with Utah officials to negotiate a deal to compensate the state for the lost land. Mr. Riley has until next May to recommend a settlement.
Congress inserted the instructions in the mammoth spending bill President Clinton signed last week.