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Public Universities Are Profiting In Billions From Industries On Stolen Indigenous Land

Extractive industries filling public university coffers on stolen land. Here's how 14 land-grant colleges took 8.2 million acres from 123 Indigenous nations.

UArizona’s reliance on state trust land for revenue not only contradicts its commitment to recognize past injustices regarding stolen Indigenous lands, but also threatens its climate commitments. The school has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2040. 

The parcels are managed by the Arizona State Land Department, a separate government agency that has leased portions of them to agriculture, grazing, and commercial activities. But extractive industries make up a major portion of the trust land portfolio. Of the 705,000 subsurface acres that benefit UArizona, almost 645,000 are earmarked for oil and gas production. The lands were taken from at least 10 Indigenous nations, almost all of which were seized by executive order or congressional action in the wake of warfare. 

Over the past year, Grist has examined publicly available data to locate trust lands associated with land-grant universities seeded by the Morrill Act. We found 14 universities that matched this criteria. In the process, we identified their original sources and analyzed their ongoing uses. In all, we located and mapped more than 8.2 million surface and subsurface acres taken from 123 Indigenous nations. This land currently produces income for those institutions.

“Universities continue to benefit from colonization,” said Sharon Stein, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of British Columbia and a climate researcher. “It’s not just a historical fact; the actual income of the institution is subsidized by this ongoing dispossession.”

The amount of acreage under management for land-grant universities varies widely, from as little as 15,000 acres aboveground in North Dakota to more than 2.1 million belowground in Texas. Combined, Indigenous nations were paid approximately $4.3 million in today’s dollars for these lands, but in many cases, nothing was paid at all. In 2022 alone, these trust lands generated more than $2.2 billion for their schools. Between 2018 and 2022, the lands produced almost $6.7 billion. However, those figures are likely an undercount as multiple state agencies did not return requests to confirm amounts.

This work builds upon previous investigations that examined how land grabs capitalized and transformed the U.S. university system. The new data reveals how state trust lands continue to transfer wealth from Indigenous nations to land-grant universities more than a century after the original Morrill Act.

It also provides insight into the relationship between colonialism, higher education, and climate change in the Western United States. 

Nearly 25 percent of land-grant university trust lands are designated for either fossil fuel production or the mining of minerals, like coal and iron-rich taconite. Grazing is permitted on about a third of the land, or approximately 2.8 million surface acres. Those parcels are often coupled with subsurface rights, which means oil and gas extraction can occur underneath cattle operations, themselves often a major source of methane emissions. Timber, agriculture, and infrastructure leases — for roads or pipelines, for instance — make up much of the remaining acreage.