SALT LAKE CITY – Long frustrated by Washington’s control of much of their state, Utah legislators are proposing a novel way to deal with federal land – seize it and develop it.
The Utah House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill allowing Utah to use eminent domain to seize land the federal government owns and has long protected from development.
The state wants to develop three hotly contested areas – national forest land in the Wasatch Mountains north of Salt Lake City, land in a proposed wilderness area in the red rock southwestern corner of the state, and a stretch of desert outside of Arches National Park that the Obama administration has declared off-limits to oil and gas development.
Supporters argue that provisions in the legislation that granted Utah statehood would allow it to make such a land grab. They also hope to spark a showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court that would rearrange the balance of power between states and the federal government.
Some legal experts say that push is unlikely to succeed, but Republican state Rep. Chris Herrod, one of the authors, says the state has little choice. “I love America, and I’m a peaceful guy,” Herrod said, “but the only real option we have is rebellion, which I don’t believe in, and the courts.”
The eminent domain proposal is among the most audacious yet in a state accustomed to heated battles over the two-thirds of its land owned by the federal government.
The proposal quickly drew scorn from environmental groups.
“This is an ideological fantasy,” said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in Moab. “Everybody knows this isn’t going to happen. The federal public lands are the thing that makes the American West so great.”
The proposal is one of a host in statehouses nationwide that show a deep discontent with federal authority. Eight legislatures have passed resolutions asserting, to various degrees, the sovereignty of their states.
In Utah, the authors of the eminent domain proposal contend they can rely on the legislation that brought Utah into the Union in 1896, which they read as requiring the federal government to sell its land in the state and give Utah a 5 percent cut.
The legislators want to seize and open two roads through national forest land the federal government had closed. This would allow access to state land that they hope to sell to developers to build high-end cabins.
A third area would be more provocative: a swath of federal land outside Arches National Park where the Bush administration, on the eve of the 2008 election, authorized oil and gas exploration. The Obama administration reversed that decision.
Legal experts contend that the federal government is under no obligation to sell its land in Utah and that no state could ever successfully seize federal property. “It flies in the face of history and is also inconsistent as a point of law,” said Bob Keiter, a law professor at the University of Utah.
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