September 19, 2018
By Spencer Neuharth
Thumb through a western South Dakota hunting atlas and you'll find a splatter of colors showing public hunting opportunities. Green indicates national forest. Purple is for national grassland. Orange denotes walk-in areas. And blue signifies school land.
School land is an oddly literal name. These tracts are owned by the state's board of education. Some of the parcels date back to 1803, when Pres. Thomas Jefferson gave land grants to schools in states entering the Union. The purpose of these tracts was to fund public education, whether through sale or lease.
In South Dakota, the original grant from 1864 gave schools Sections 16 and 36 in each township (or other lands if those sections were already settled). States in the Great Plains needed this provision, because eastern counties were well established, while those to the west weren't. It's how western areas of South Dakota and Nebraska ended up with many square miles of school trust land, when there's far less of it to the east.
Today most of these areas are open to public hunting, giving sportsmen thousands of acres on which to chase elk, antelope and, of course, whitetails. However, the school land outlook wasn't always so rosy.
Some states struggled with corruption and incompetence early in the program, with properties often being sold at bargain prices to private buyers. As a result, Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Arkansas, Indiana and Ohio, among other states, retained none of their original grants. Several were bailed out down the road with other federal gifts, including the Swampland grant that gave Minnesota 4.7 million more acres.
States that joined the U.S. after the 1880s took note of this flawed management and used a different approach to monetize the land given to them. Leases became more popular, as local farmers and businesses rented the ground for planting crops, grazing livestock, harvesting timber and extracting oil. It's why states such as Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico on average still have as much of the original acreage as they do.
The history of school trust lands is a reminder of why we shouldn't let history repeat itself with the modern land grab now under way. Losing these tracts means losing public-land hunting opportunity.