An Introduction to State Trust Land

With more than 22 million acres of public land and thriving wildlife populations, Colorado seems like the model for public land management. However, due in part to a small number of powerful lease holders, Colorado maintains nearly 3 million acres of state trust land largely inaccessible to the general public. Fortunately for public land advocates, in 2019 Colorado’s State Land Board (SLB) voted to expand recreational access on state trust land in cooperation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). The expansion program will make nearly 1 million acres of state trust land publicly available to hunters and anglers.[1] The SLB’s 2019 decision demonstrates an effort to shift public land policy away from Colorado’s private interests towards greater public access. Its focus on hunters and anglers acknowledges these land users’ critical role in public lands management.

The sun rises over Colorado State Trust Land.
Photo courtesy of author, Sean Fallon.

Where Colorado’s State Trust Land Came From

Following the American Revolution, settlers, who had been steadily trickling westward for years, advanced in greater numbers across the Appalachian Divide. They flooded into the Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee valleys. The newly-minted American government needed a formal land policy to govern how land would be distributed. The Land Ordinance of 1785 implemented the Jeffersonian Grid, named after founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Under this system, land needed to be surveyed before it was available for purchase at auction. As it surveyed the land, the government reserved at least one section of every township in a state. It entrusted this land to a state land board who would manage it for “the maintenance of public schools” through the leases it administered.[2] As additional states joined the Union, these trust lands came to total more than 80 million acres. When that figure includes land in Alaska and Hawaii, state trust lands cover 100 million acres.[3]

A patchwork of cropland in Kansas spreads out across the landscape in a palette of greens and browns, showcasing the impact of the Jeffersonian grid system.
NASA satellites captured this image of a checkerboard of crop land in Kansas. The neat squares are the Jeffersonian grid system’s legacy written on the American landscape. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

However, there was a problem. The land Jefferson intended to distribute among states, townships, and hardy yeoman farmers was already being occupied and used. The cultural drives to neatly order nature and put land into private ownership guided early Americans’ assumptions about land use. These concepts, however, were alien to the Native American tribes who occupied and used the land for millennia. Opposing worldviews caused generations of bloodshed. Over the course of many decades the west was finally “settled” under the Jeffersonian Grid system, though the conflict remains far from resolved. Fundamental disagreements between indigenous people and Euro-Americans over land were and continue to be contested. This violent history is quietly embodied in a formal system only recognizable in its distinctive patchwork appearance from the air.

Public Land, Private Property

State trust lands are considered private property and are managed by the State Land Board, or the SLB. Approximately 95% of Colorado’s SLB lands are managed as part of the state School Trust, while the rest are distributed across seven other trusts:

  • Public Buildings Trust
  • Penitentiary Trust
  • Land for University Trust (Colorado University Boulder)
  • Land for Agricultural University Trust (Colorado State University)
  • Hesperus Trust (Fort Lewis College)
  • Internal Improvements Trust
  • Salt Springs Trust (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

The SLB’s management philosophy is guided by a dual mandate to “produce reasonable and consistent” revenue and to also provide “sound stewardship” of state trust land. The SLB has successfully executed the first part of the mandate. Between 2014-15 alone, lease agreements on trust land generated $186 million for the state coffers. Since 2009, SLB leases have generated more than $1.4 billion for public education statewide.[4] It is second part of the mandate, however, where many in the conservation community feel the SLB has fallen short.

The Trouble with Accessing State Trust Land

Colorado’s population exploded in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Greater numbers of public lands users made accessing public lands for hunting and angling more difficult. To alleviate some of this pressure, public land advocacy groups advocated expanding public access to state trust lands. A small number of powerful lease holders thwarted their efforts, but in the early 1990s the SLB and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) adopted a Walk-In Access Program. Today, CPW maintains leases on 28 percent of trust land that allow for public hunting and angling.[5]

Despite this, hunters cite loss or limited access to quality public land as a primary factor limiting new hunter recruitment. From a peak of about 17 million in the early 1980s, fewer than 12 million people will buy a hunting license in 2020.[6]  This is problematic for conservation in Colorado. In 2018, 56% of funds for statewide conservation and recreation programs came from license sales.[7] At the national level, hunting license sales generated more than $185 million for wildlife conservation, and excise taxes leveraged on firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment generate another $86 million for these programs annually. Declining hunter participation directly impacts funding for wildlife conservation and public lands management.

While license sales provide much-needed revenue for public lands, recreational use on approximately two thirds of state trust land is limited to private lease holders, regardless of the purpose of the lease. For example, a 15,000-acre grazing lease from the SLB also grants exclusive hunting and angling rights for the lessee and their immediate family.[8] In other words, non-recreational lessees are not paying for the exclusive hunting and angling access they currently have on state trust land.


Fewer hunters and anglers translates to fewer dollars for important programs supporting the acquisition and improvement of wildlife habitat, reintroduction of wildlife into suitable habitat, research into wildlife problems, inventories of wildlife populations, acquisition and development of facilities for public use, hunter education and more. The SLB’s decision to expand public access allows the agency to more effectively execute its mission of pursuing both revenue and stewardship. Granting greater access to these traditionally closed-off properties will help to revive a tradition of hunting and angling that is vitally important to wildlife conservation and public lands management in Colorado.

-Sean Fallon, Architectural Historian at Pinyon Environmental, Inc., Founder of Native Pursuits

Published 01/23/2020


Additional Information:

Native Pursuits, “Taking the First Step,” 2018.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers: The Voice for our Wild Public Lands, Waters, and Wildlife.

Online Hunter Education courses for all 50 states:


[1] Liz Rose, “Access to Colorado’s State Trust Land Doubles: Boots on the Ground Make it Happen,” Backcountry Journal: The Magazine for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. Summer 2019. Pg. 28-29.

[2] Culp, Peter; Conradi, Diane; & Yuell, Cynthia; Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Sonoran Institute, Trust Lands in the American West: A Legal Overview and Policy Assessment. 2005. Pg. 2-3.

[3] Evans, John M.; Brown, Reeves; Burget, Mark A. E.; and University of Colorado Boulder. Natural Resources Law Center, “A Trust for Whom?: Managing Colorado’s 3 Million Acres of State Land”. 1996.

[4] Colorado State Land Board, Department of Natural Resources, Colorado Land Board Overview 2015-15. 2015.

[5] Colorado Parks and Wildlife, 2019 Regular Walk-In Access Program. Fall 2019.  

[6] Natalie Krebs, “Why We Suck at Recruiting New Hunters, Why it Matters, and How You Can Fix It”, Outdoor Life, Oct 15, 2019.

[7] Colorado Parks and Wildlife 2019 Fact Sheet: A Review of Statewide Conservation and Recreation Programs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 2019.

[8] Colorado State Land Board, Department of Natural Resources, Recreation FAQ. 2019.