The Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners voted 4-1 on Nov. 5 to reject the surface lease of school trust land inside a proposed wind project, forgoing an estimated $21 million income over the 40 year life of the project to support our fiscally strapped public schools. Worse, that decision also apparently violates the commissioners’ duty as trustees to manage school trust lands to maximize the benefit for the beneficiaries, the school children of Wyoming.
That duty, laid out in the Wyoming Constitution, in our statehood Act of Admission and in statute, requires a trustee’s undivided loyalty to the beneficiary of the trust. When Wyoming became a state in 1890, it received about 4 million acres of surface and an equal amount of subsurface minerals specifically to support public education, and we vowed to do that. The apparent distraction from that duty on Nov. 5 was complaints by area landowners that the wind project by ConnectGen would harm their viewshed and property values. The Land Board also spent hours on ConnectGen’s industrial siting permit application and issues extraneous to the lease question and beyond anything in the purview of the board.
As a long-time advocate for the state to comply with its fiduciary duty to the school trust, and as a school board trustee myself, I consider the action of the Land Board as a failure to discharge that duty.
At the meeting, Assistant Attorney General Brandi Monger reminded the commissioners (the top five state elected officials) of their duty to “maximize the value of the trust land and for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the state trust land.” State Treasurer Curt Maier mistakenly said that was an “opinion” and claimed the state could take a “holistic” view to include others who might benefit from the trust. No. The trust beneficiaries are the school children of Wyoming, and the vote Nov. 5 did not put them first. Monger further clarified that, politics aside, “This board isn’t responsible for deciding if it is a good project. Your responsibility is as a fiduciary for state trust lands.”
The lease affects four parcels of school trust land totaling 4,803.87 acres in southern Albany County, constituting about 20 percent of the wind project amidst private landowners who are signed on. If its application to the Industrial Siting Council is approved, the project can proceed without the trust land, and its absence will make no difference to anyone’s viewshed, but it will cost the school trust some $21 million in payments from ConnectGen. That compares to grazing income to the trust for those same parcels over the same period of time of $328,612.
Aside from the revenue lost on this lease, and in addition to the violation of duties as a trustee, consider the potential damage to the ability of the staff of the Office of State Lands and Investments to negotiate leases and exchanges to the benefit of our schoolchildren. The wind lease had been negotiated in good faith by both ConnectGen and the state and was recommended by OSLI staff based on those negotiations and the statutory responsibility of the Board. That loss of trust in negotiated agreements erodes the value of the trust asset and could cost the trust millions in income and interest on the permanent land fund. I hope the Board of Land Commissioners tries to take corrective action on this lease decision, but I wonder if the damage to the trust can be repaired.
The loss of income and potential income is bad enough, but it comes at a time when school districts around the state face devastating budget cuts resulting from loss of energy-related revenue that has been earmarked for foundation and construction accounts. School trust revenue is exclusively dedicated to support of public education, by law and Constitution. It is more important now than ever to get school trust management right. The vote on Nov. 5 did not get it right.