08 August 2016

Primary Educational Lands are Nebraska Public Property

In order to define the “ownership” status of school lands, an investigation was done to determine how property was conveyed from its ownership by the United States of America.

There are three known methods:

  1. the Nebraska constitution when the state was established in 1867
  2. an abstract as filed in association with Cherry county deed records
  3. through conveyance from a private landowner to the state or the agency responsible for management of school lands

Nebraska’s Constitution

When an Act of Congress was passed to establish the state, section 7 provides in part, that:

“And be it further enacted, that sections number sixteen and thirty-six in every township ... shall be, and are hereby granted to said state for the support of common schools.”

This is according to an opinion issued from the Attorney General Office of Nebraska, in 1989, as submitted by Robert M. Spire, the AG at the time. This document — available online — includes this statement:

“The fact that these lands are held in trust pursuant to the Nebraska Constitution and Enabling act has the effect of incorporating the rules of law regulating the administration of trusts and the conduct and duties of trustees.”

This is indicative that the Board of Educational Lands and Funds has specific responsibilities of a trust, which would include a regular trust report?

Land Parcel Sales Transactions

Another method of transference is shown by abstract filings in Cherry county deed records indicating when particular parcels were transferred from the U.S. government or as being made available for purchase.

Numerous property parcels had been selected by the state of Nebraska “for the support of schools” in July 1893. The filing as dutifully denoted by the deed office records comprised 38 parcels and 12,640 acres. Each parcel was individually denoted to a section within a township and range (Cherry county deed record book I, page 386, etc.). There were some additional parcels listed in association for an overall total of 13,638.18 acres. They were identified as “Clear List No. 2 of Valentine Nebraska, School Indemnity selections.” They were selected for sale.

Another filing on public lands occurred in February, 1899 indicated property parcels that would henceforth be listed as school lands (Deed record book I, pages 395-401). The list of parcels spanned multiple pages.

The deed book record states:

“… the government of the United States confirms title in the State of Nebraska to the lands therein mentioned except that the annexed list of lands aggregating 13,907.55 acres mentioned only in the lands in Cherry County, which are confirmed to the state by said document, while this list of lands is one of the documents above mentioned and is on file in my office.”

The signature was by J.V. Wolfe, commissioner of public lands and buildings, from his government office in Lincoln. An additional signature was that by E.H. Nelson, deputy.

This list included multiple 16 and 36 parcels, with a list of the considered acreage as parcel size varied. Each parcel, with – “title in the state of Nebraska” - were subject to sale at Valentine, Nebraska. Some of the parcels also continued to be owned by the state, subsequent to 2000 A.D.

The Board of Educational Lands and Funds continues to regularly offer trust parcels for sale. There are also still significant tracts of state land, with one large area with more than 30 parcels westward of the confluence of the Snake River at the Niobrara River, northward to Church Flat, and then a few miles to the south (south of the Prairie Club); one parcel was sold to the Prairie Club Golf Course. Sixteen parcels occur along the North Loup River, in T28N R31W, near were historic DeWitty once occurred. Also along eastern Big Creek, westward of Brownlee (12 parcels).

Numerous examples of some of the parcels listed remained to be the property of the state, as indicated in recent plat books. In other cases, such as associated with the Fawn Lake Ranch, R.E. “Ted” Turner bought – early in the summer of 2006 – 15 parcels comprising more than 5680 acres with the within or immediately adjacent to the ranch property. A few parcels were also purchased that were associated with the Spikebox Ranch and Dan Hill Ranch, in Sheridan county.

Land Transfers

When considering method 3, one particular situation has a degree of vagueness. In April 1989, multiple parcels within T25N R28W were conveyed by “warranty deed” to the BELF, according to records carefully denoted by staff of the Cherry county register of deeds office (deed book I, page 765). The ownership of multiple parcels was transferred from Hanna Ranches Ltd. to Board of Educational Lands and Funds. There were more than a dozen parcels indicated, comprising more than 5200 acres. The transfer occurred with a consideration of one dollar. Signers of the official document were Samuel K. Hanna and Tom D. Hanna, representing Hanna Ranches Ltd.

Some other associated land transfers with this property area were associated with property exchanges, as designated in the official record, notably land exchanges as specifically indicated.

BELF parcels within T25N R28W have subsequently been indicated – based upon online Federal Aviation Administration records - as the location for a potential wind turbine farm. A permit to place a meteorological tower in section 36, T25N R29W was approved May 26, 2015 by the Cherry County Board of Commissioners.

School Land Management

Key historic documents indicate that school lands have been identified as public property owned by the residents of Nebraska, based upon the state of Nebraska constitution, parcel identification indicated in several plat map books, and details indicated in the official deed records.

The land is owned by the citizens of Nebraska, yet they have not taken advantage of the many opportunities to present comments that would have been useful for directing management.

Considerations — or even concerns — regarding management of the parcels include:

  1. What are the criteria evaluated regarding use and management of school lands?
  2. How does BELF provide opportunities for input, including public meetings, regarding the fate of property parcels this state agency manages? This is especially appropriate as parcels are regularly being sold to private entities?
  3. How does BELF provide opportunities for public comment in the local area where land parcel transactions occur? If property is to be sold in Cherry county, there should be a meeting in this regard within the county.
  4. How does BELF recognize any unique biological or cultural features associated with the land parcels which it manages?
  5. How does BELF suitably conserve unique features associated with the land parcels it manages? Does consultation with land management agencies, such as the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, or the Fish and Wildlife Service occur?
  6. How can the public actively contribute to any actions associated with school lands activities, including resource conservation and decisions on whether or not a parcel should be sold?
  7. What land management practices should occur on school lands, especially those tracts where there are multiple parcels in an associated tract? Decisions need to be made based upon more factors than simply economics.
  8. What is the difference in property originally transferred to the state when Nebraska was established, and property transferred to the Bureau of Educational Lands and Funds?
  9. Other points that need to be considered, etc..

It should also be noted that there is legislation that authorizes the purchase of a section of school land property on an annual basis by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The key facet is that the management and use of school lands requires an opportunity for a public dialog on their management, which should include active input and commentary by residents of Nebraska.

This has not been the case, thus far. The only notifications that BELF issues in a public manner is a notice of a parcel sale, indicating the property details, sparse particulars and the date of the auction. There is no indication given on what was considered that led to a decision that this public property should be sold.

Primarily, when was a public hearing held regarding any decision on listing public lands as places where wind turbines could be placed?