History of School Lands for Public Hunting

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.

Acreage owned by South Dakota's school system offers public hunting opportunity. (Photo courtesy of South Dakota Office of School & Public Lands)


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.

Recommended for You

Restore the predator balance on your land. Land Management

Managing Hog & Coyote Populations for Whitetail Properties

Mark Wooley

Restore the predator balance on your land.

Good location is just part of the equation. Scouting

The Best Summer Trail Camera Strategy

Tony J. Peterson

Good location is just part of the equation.

Improve the nutritional benefits that your land offers local deer. Land Management

No Matter the Season, Deer Orchard Work Brings Big Benefits to Whitetails

Lynn Burkhead - June 27, 2019

Improve the nutritional benefits that your land offers local deer.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Deer Dog: Puppy Pitfalls

Deer Dog: Puppy Pitfalls

On this edition of "Deer Dog," Jeremy Moore explores the pitfalls of puppy training.

Alternative Season Whitetail Hunt

Alternative Season Whitetail Hunt

Mike Clerkin is hunting the alternative weapon whitetail season in Missouri with his S&W revolver.

NAW: Predator Management

NAW: Predator Management

On this edition of "Deer Factory," Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan discuss ways to manage predators when it comes to your deer hunting property.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

In terms of coloration, which whitetails are the rarest of all? Most hunters would claim that Deer Behavior & Facts

Rarest Whitetails Of All?

Gordon Whittington - September 22, 2010

In terms of coloration, which whitetails are the rarest of all? Most hunters would claim that

Understanding what deer eat and how they adjust their diets to meet changing nutritional requirements will not only increase your chances of harvesting a good buck, but also your enjoyment of whitetail hunting. Land Management

What Do Deer Eat?

Dr. James C. Kroll - November 03, 2015

Understanding what deer eat and how they adjust their diets to meet changing nutritional...

Good location is just part of the equation. Scouting

The Best Summer Trail Camera Strategy

Tony J. Peterson

Good location is just part of the equation.

See More Stories

More Conservation

Thumb through a western South Dakota hunting atlas and you'll find a splatter of colors showing Conservation

History of School Lands for Public Hunting

Spencer Neuharth - September 19, 2018

Thumb through a western South Dakota hunting atlas and you'll find a splatter of colors...

As Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) has riddled deer herds across portions of the country in Conservation

University Testing Finds Help in Deer EHD Outbreak Battle

North American Whitetail Online Staff - July 07, 2017

As Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) has riddled deer herds across portions of the country...

The whitetail has a dramatic effect on its habitat and on many other species sharing it. But in the Conservation

Whitetails Are Impacting Caribou Population

Spencer Neuharth - November 09, 2017

The whitetail has a dramatic effect on its habitat and on many other species sharing it. But...

See More Conservation

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

×