At a time when many states are looking at ways to strike back at an out-of-control federal government which is planning to saddle them with more and more massive, unfunded mandates and unconstitutional obligations, the government of Utah has found an interesting way to strike back. It's not as direct as the approach being pursued by more than a dozen states which are suing the federal government over Obamacare, but it may turn out to be even more effective.
The Utah state legislature has passed two bills which have been signed by Governor Gary Herbert, which will begin the process of seizing valuable federal land within the state under the rules of eminent domain. The idea has a certain charming irony to it considering how often state and federal governments have used eminent domain to deprive citizens of their property rights, but the results could be of enormous benefits to the citizens of Utah.
Utah is like several other western states which have enormous amounts of land that are under federal control. In their case it is a total of 60% of their land area, including major fossil fuel deposits which the Obama administration has ruled off-limits for mining and drilling. The state government hopes to take control of that land, sell leases for the mineral rights and spend that money to solve some of the state's budgetary problems including public education funding.
The federal government controls similarly large areas of resource-rich land in 12 western states totaling about 650 million acres. Most of this land is under the control of the Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Department of Agriculture. It includes about 200 million acres of forest land, 80 million acres of park land and 90 million acres of wildlife refuge. If other states were to follow Utah's lead the potential payoff in mineral, energy and other natural resources — maybe even in tourism dollars — would be extraordinary.
There have been past proposals, including federal legislation, to return some or all of the land or the resource rights to the states, but with a weak economy, tight budgets and new unfunded mandates like additional unemployment costs and coming health care costs, the need is greater now than ever before.
Unfortunately, the states which have this option and might follow Utah's lead are mostly not ones with the large populations which will make the coming costs unbearable. They will also face years of legal resistance from the federal government before they are likely to see any results from their efforts. The importance of Utah's effort may be mostly symbolic, but with the federal government willfully ignoring the best interests of the people, it's at least some reassurance that there are states which are looking for solutions and trying to protect their citizens with whatever methods they can come up with.