Frustrated over their state’s inability to gain access to Utah’s abundant store of natural resources, Utah lawmakers are challenging the federal government’s control over their land.
Over 60 percent of Utah’s land is owned by the federal government, and the feds routinely find ways to make the state’s energy- and mineral rich land off limits to development. The result is lost jobs and tax revenues that have made withstanding the current recession all the more difficult.
The fired-up Utah lawmakers want to use eminent domain to wrest control of land from the federal government, sell the land to private parties, and collect the revenues that the energy and minerals development would create. Initially, the lawmakers will target three parcels for the use of eminent domain in the Kaiparowits plateau in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is know to contain large amounts of low-sulfur coal.
“In the Kaiparowits plateau alone there is a trillion dollars worth of natural resources. Had that been privatized, we’d have $50 billion in our school trust fund,” Rep. Christopher Herrod, a Provo Republican sponsoring the eminent domain bill, told the Associated Press (Feb. 13). Herrod argues that the federal government has violated its agreement with Utah when it gained statehood because it has not sold federal lands and turned those revenues over to the state. As a result, the state is chronically short in funding its school system. Having less money at its disposal, Utah spends less per pupil than any other state in the union. The state is currently facing a $700 million shortfall.
Under legislation Herrod introduced in the Utah House Feb. 11, the state would set aside $3 million to pursue its eminent domain case in the courts. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who would lead the charge on eminent domain, wholeheartedly supports Herrod’s legislation.
Last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar infuriated policymakers in Utah by withdrawing 77 leases for oil and gas exploration on federal land in the state. Salazar’s move appears to have been the proverbial straw that broke the camels back, triggering the Herrod’s daring challenge to federal control. Herrod and his colleagues hope that their action will encourage other resource-rich western states to launch similar eminent domain cases against the giant landlord in Washington.