Utah Wants to Grab Federal Land

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has authorized the use of eminent domain to take some of the U.S. government-owned land in the state and turn it over to economic developers. Federal-owned land accounts for more than 60 percent of the acreage in Utah.

Herbert has signed a pair of bills into law intended to level the playing filed for economic development on energy-rich parcels that currently are owned by the federal government.

Utah’s move is intended to provide the basis for a U.S. Supreme Court challenge to vast government land holdings. State officials told the Associated Press they hope Utah’s initiative will prompt other Western states that are home to large federal land holdings to join the fight, but they state attorneys conceded that a favorable ruling is a long-shot.

But Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says the case is still worth fighting, since the state could reap millions of dollars for state schools each year if it wins.

Initially, the state would target three areas for the use of eminent domain, including the Kaiparowits plateau in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is home to large coal reserves. President Bill Clinton designated the area as a national monument in 1996, a move that stopped development on the land. Eminent domain would also be used on parcels of land where Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last year scrapped 77 oil and gas leases around national parks and wild areas, officials said.

Utah lawmakers contend the federal government should have long ago sold the land it owns in the state. Because it hasn’t, they say, the federal government has violated a contract made with Utah when statehood was granted.

Utah officials are hoping that the current Supreme Court’s flexibility on the issue of eminent domain will tilt the Court in favor of a bid to apply it to federal land. In a highly controversial ruling in 2005, the Court upheld the seizure of private residential property for a commercial development that was eventually abandoned in Connecticut.