Utah Uses Eminent Domain to Seize Land of ... Uncle Sam

Utah is itching for a land fight. A battle with Washington over territorial rights and state sovereignty. It wants to spark a revolt in which Western states attempt to wrest control of federal lands within their borders.

The Beehive State might just get its way, too. In March, Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed a controversial law authorizing the use of eminent domain to capture some of the millions of acres that the federal government owns here. The law was tailor-made to provoke a lawsuit, possibly reaching the US Supreme Court, and to inspire other Western states to enact similar legislation.

While it's unusual for eminent domain to involve the taking of federal lands, this law is a byproduct of many Utahns' frustrations: The US government owns more than 60 percent of the state, thus dictating whether land has been set aside for preservation or can be accessed for mineral deposits.

The law also comes amid a wave of states' rights initiatives nationwide, which are challenging the federal government's authority on gun laws and President Obama's health-care reform.

"In this country, people are awake. They are seeing the encroachment of the federal government more than ever," says Amber Harrison, an activist who traveled last fall to Washington from Vernal, in northeastern Utah. She advocates that the federal government offer more leases on its land for oil and natural-gas drilling.

The eminent domain law, Ms. Harrison says, "gives us the opportunity as a state to tell the federal government that this is ours and we know how to control it." She adds, "We can take some of these public lands and put them back to work for us."

Land disputes are certainly nothing new in the rural and rugged West. But many conflicts pitting preservationist against developer have become a central theme in Utah's contemporary narrative – especially as education spending is cut, budget shortfalls climb, and unemployment persists.

Indeed, some blame the federal government's barriers to development on mineral-rich public lands for keeping millions in associated tax revenues from flowing into schools. Utah has the lowest per capita student spending in America.

Over the past 15 or so years, the state has taken an increasingly aggressive stance against the expansion of federally protected land. The catalyst: In 1996, President Clinton designated the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a 1.9 million-acre swath of southern Utah that the state had eyed for energy developments.

"One small section of the Grand Staircase has a trillion dollars in natural resources," says Rep. Chris Herrod, the Republican state legislator from Provo who sponsored the eminent domain bill. "The people of Utah are being robbed."

Then, last year, the Obama administration revoked 77 leases for development on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in Utah. Many here saw it as a sign that more federal control was bound for Utah's public lands.

What's more, a recently leaked Interior Department memo suggests that two more sites in Utah could be potential national monuments, which would put them off limits to any development. That set off a firestorm of criticism from Republican lawmakers who said Mr. Obama was on the verge of orchestrating a massive and secretive federal "land grab."

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