School trust lands are an important and broadly misunderstood category of land ownership. They are publicly owned and managed yet have a different legal purpose than other public lands. Just as state parks, wildlife management areas or other types of public land have legally defined objectives, so do school trust lands. They were established in multiple state constitutions to be held in trust for a single and specific purpose: to generate revenue for public schools.
Minnesota’s school trust lands comprise approximately 2.5 million acres plus one million acres of school trust lands severed mineral interests. The lands include forestlands, large deposits of developed and undeveloped minerals, riparian lands, construction aggregate, grasslands, farmlands used for grazing and crop production, and a significant quantity of wetlands that are currently economically unproductive because they are low-lying and inaccessible and therefore have little or no marketability.
More than two million acres, or 92%, of Minnesota’s school trust lands are located in ten northern Minnesota counties. School trust lands are a substantial share of the total land base in a number of these counties. The remaining school trust lands are dispersed through other parts of the state, with less than 500 acres remaining in the southern third of the state.
The State of Minnesota shares geography with eleven Tribal Nations — four Dakota communities in the southern portion of the state and seven Ojibwe communities in the north. The name Minnesota comes from the Daḳota name for this region, Mni Sota Maḳoce — "the land where the waters reflect the clouds." The Daḳota and Ojibwe, whose cultural, spiritual, and economic practices are intrinsically woven to this landscape, hold this land sacred.
From 1837-67, the Ojibwe and Dakota people negotiated government to government with the United States and, through a series of treaties, ceded most of the land that is now Minnesota to the federal government while preserving their sovereign land, rights, and privileges.
All 2.5 million acres of Minnesota school trust lands are located within ceded territories with a small subset situated within tribal reservations boundaries.
The history of school trust lands is one of extraordinary vision on the part of this nation's founding fathers. The idea was simple: generate income from land to supplement public school funding. The original thirteen states had sovereign authority over all of the lands within their borders. This land provided a tax base for the support of education and other governmental functions. In contrast, the federal government owned vast areas of the territories that later became states. This land was immune from taxation. As a result, states created from these public lands would not have been on an "equal footing" with those of the original thirteen. Congress, therefore, made land grants to the newly admitted states in order to equalize their tax base status with that of the original thirteen.
Legislation adopted by the Continental Congress in 1785 established a framework under which states and territories reserved lands to help pay for public schools. When Minnesota became a State in 1858, the federal government granted sections 16 and 36 of every township, or their equivalent, to the state "for the use of schools". Congress later granted additional lands, entrusting Minnesota with a total of 8.1 million acres. All three federal grants are now considered school trust lands in the Minnesota Constitution.
In the late 1800s, state policy promoted selling these lands to private owners as quickly as possible. By 1900, the state sold much of the land—especially agricultural land in the southern part of the state—to private interests. In the early 1900s, state policy began to shift toward acknowledgment that public ownership and management of school trust lands were in the best long-term interest of generating revenue for public schools, and the Minnesota Legislature modified its school trust lands management policy by placing a number of restrictions on how the state would manage its remaining school trust acreage. Since the turn of the 20th century, the state has managed school trust lands under the policy of “selective retention” of lands, with various laws requiring reserving them for their future economic potential, and to retain them in public ownership.
Since 1861, several state entities have managed Minnesota’s school trust lands, including the State Board of Commissioners of School Lands (1861), the State Land Office (1862-1931), and the Department of Conservation (1931-1969). In 1969, the Legislature reorganized the Department of Conservation into the Department of Natural Resources, where management of school trust lands remains today.
School Trust Lands printable map