Utah Governor Herbert Signs Law Challenging Federal Lands Expansion

Published March 31, 2010

Fed up with the federal government locking up state lands rich in economically productive natural resources, Utah governor Gary Herbert (R) has signed a bill authorizing the state to use eminent domain to seize federal lands and open them up for energy production.

Feds Stifling State’s Economy
The federal government already owns more than 60 percent of the land in Utah and has recently engaged in a pattern of rendering economically productive land off-limits to development as soon as natural resources are discovered. The result is lost jobs and lost tax revenues exacerbating an already difficult economic recession.

Frustrated Utah lawmakers passed the eminent domain law to wrest control of land from the federal government, sell the property to private parties, and collect the revenues the energy and minerals development would create.

Initial eminent domain targets include national forest land in the Wasatch Mountains, desert land near Arches National Park, a proposed wilderness area in desert near the Nevada border, and the Kaiparowits Plateau in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which became a national monument in a controversial designation by the Clinton administration.

State Rep. Christopher Herrod (R-Provo), who sponsored the bill in the Utah House, says the Kaiparowits Plateau alone contains a trillion dollars worth of natural resources, primarily in the form of low-sulfur coal. Energy production in the plateau alone would provide $50 billion for the state’s school trust fund, Herrod says, mitigating the state’s $700 million budget deficit. At a time when the Utah economy is suffering under the weight of a national recession, natural resource production would substantial create economic benefits for citizens throughout the state.

Other States May Follow
The new law sets aside $3 million for the state to pursue its eminent domain case in the courts, where the law is likely to be challenged. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who would lead the charge on eminent domain, has said he wholeheartedly supports the law.

Last year Interior Secretary Ken Salazar infuriated Utah policymakers by withdrawing 77 leases for oil and gas exploration on federal land in the state. As a result of more restrictive leasing practices under the Obama administration, fewer acres of federal land were leased last year for natural resource production on federal lands in the U.S. than in any year on record.

States such as Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana are rich in minerals as well as oil and natural gas, but a substantial percentage of these resources are located on the millions of acres of federal land. Herrod and his colleagues say they hope their action will encourage other resource-rich western states to launch similar eminent domain cases against the federal landlord in Washington.

Feds Misusing Antiquities Law
“The administration’s proposed massive increase in the use of the 1906 Antiquities Act to cripple U.S. energy and mineral development across the West has been met with outrage across the country,” said Robert J. Smith, senior environmental scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. “Designed to protect specific Indian ruins, archeological sites, and fossil deposits, it has been used by recent U.S. presidents to convert millions of acres of high-energy land into playgrounds for backpackers at the expense of a thriving economy.

“In 1996, when President Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah,” Smith explained, “it put off-limits to development one of the largest deposits of EPA-compliant clean coal in the world. Unfortunately, Utah’s governor at the time, Mike Leavitt (R), chose not to fight. But now that the United States continues to suffer through a recession and watches its international competitors corner the world’s energy and mineral resources, the federal government’s irresponsible actions are reigniting the embers of the Sagebrush Rebellion. Western states are now trying to loosen the shackles of Washington’s green serfdom.”  

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., ([email protected]) is a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.