Any river is really the summation of the whole valley. To think of it as nothing but water is to ignore the greater part.

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State trust lands are an important part of the landscape in the Verde River watershed and throughout Arizona. Comprising approximately 10% of the land area in the watershed, most state trust land parcels are leased for grazing or agriculture. Such uses are largely consistent with the continued provision of watershed services by state trust lands, where intact grasslands provide critical aquifer recharge supporting Verde River base flows.

However, state trust lands are quite different from other publicly managed lands. They are managed by the Arizona State Land Department under a fiduciary mandate to provide revenue for specific beneficiaries – mainly K-12 public education in Arizona. State trust lands are unique in their history and management constraints. More information on the background of state trust lands can be found here.

While the majority of trust lands in Arizona are leased for grazing and agriculture, mineral development, and commercial uses, the lion’s share of the revenue generated from state trust lands comes from sale of land for residential and commercial development. However, large-scale development of state trust land parcels within the Verde River watershed has the potential to increase groundwater pumping, which would stress the region’s water supplies and jeopardize a flowing Verde River.

The Verde Land & Water Planning Toolbox highlights a variety of strategies relevant to state trust land management. These strategies could assist the Arizona State Land Department in both meeting the trust obligations for these lands and contributing to the protection of watershed functions on key trust land parcels in the Verde River basin. Information about these tools and strategies can be found here.

State Land Map

State trust land parcels within the Verde River watershed are noted in the light blue. Map Credit: The Nature Conservancy.

State trust land parcels within the Verde River watershed are noted in the light blue. Map Credit: The Nature Conservancy.

State trust lands are an important land ownership category in Arizona, comprising nearly 9.2 million acres throughout the state. In the Verde River basin, there are nearly 380,000 acres of state trust lands, the majority of which are interspersed in a checkerboard pattern across the aquifers that feed the base flows in the upper Verde River watershed.

State trust lands have a unique history and purpose that is quite different from any other state or federally owned public lands. Trust lands were formerly held by the federal government, but were conveyed to Arizona at statehood by Congress to provide support for essential public institutions, primarily public education and K-12 schools. Arizona originally received approximately 10.5 million acres of trust land in its original grant in 1910.

Typically, the general public does not often distinguish public lands held for multiple use, recreation, or conservation from state trust lands, but the mandate for management of state trust lands is quite different. State trust lands, as their name implies, are held in trust by the states, which have a fiduciary duty to manage, lease, or sell these lands to generate revenue for the identified public beneficiaries.

The fiduciary duties created by the trust relationship established in the Arizona Enabling Act and State Constitution require that the lands be managed in the best interests of those beneficiaries. However, the Arizona State Land Department recognizes that to meet the long term, intergenerational needs of trust beneficiaries, it requires a holistic approach to managing the trust land portfolio. The current approach is to proactively identify opportunities for generation of value, including the exploration of new and emerging markets for revenue generation. Protection of Verde River flows could yield significant regional and statewide benefits in terms of sustaining watershed values, including community water supplies and economic prosperity related to the outdoor recreation economy. However, some constraints remain on the participation of state trust land managers working toward achieving these goals with trust land holdings. This Toolbox is intended to explore tools that can balance the fiduciary mandate of the trust for the beneficiaries through revenue generation, while also examining opportunities to protect critical ecological functions in the Verde watershed.

Learn more about the history and management of state trust lands, and their impact on growth and development patterns in Arizona:

superstition mountains

The Superstition Mountains outside the Phoenix metro area, as seen from one of the largest parcels of state trust lands held in the western U.S.

The Verde Land & Water Planning Toolbox that focuses on state trust land management is intended to explore some potential strategies for achieving watershed protection on state trust lands in ways that are consistent with the fiduciary obligations of trust managers. The information featured in this Toolbox may also be useful for stakeholders concerned about the future of state trust lands in the Verde watershed, particularly those lands that may be critical to ensuring water security as well as the long-term health of the Verde River.

The tools and strategies discussed in this Toolbox range from traditional activities associated with state trust land management, such as sales, leasing structures, and the disposition (sales) planning process, to more innovative practices involving participation in ecosystem service market activities and conservation leasing.

To learn more about these tools and strategies, select from the categories below:

Another resource for watershed protection strategies that align with the fiduciary mandate for managing state trust lands can be found in “ Conserving State Trust Lands: Strategies for the Intermountain West.

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