History of the Federal Use of Eminent Domain

Land Acquisition in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

The needs of a growing population for more modern modes of transportation triggered many additional acquisitions in the early decades of the twentieth century, for constructing railroads or maintaining navigable waters.

The 1930s saw many land acquisition cases in support of New Deal policies that aimed to resettle impoverished farmers, build large-scale irrigation projects, and establish new national parks. Thousands of smaller land and natural resources projects were undertaken by Congress. For example, in one case the government acquired forestland around a stream in Illinois to prevent erosion and silting.

During World War II, the Assistant Attorney General called the Lands Division “the biggest real estate office of any time or any place.”  It oversaw the acquisition of more than 20 million acres of land.  Property was transformed into airports and naval stations, war materials manufacturing and storage, and a number of other national defense installations. 

The numbers of land acquisition cases active today on behalf of the federal government are below the World War II level, but the projects undertaken remain important to national interests.  In the past decade, the government has been actively involved in conservation work, assisting in the expansion of Everglades National Park in Florida and the creation of Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. Today, projects include acquiring land along hundreds of miles of the United States-Mexico border to stem illegal drug trafficking and smuggling, allow for better inspection and customs facilities, and forestall terrorists.

Properties acquired are spread across the United States. They provide housing for government services, transportation infrastructure and national defense and national security installations, and recreational opportunities and environmental management areas. 

Source: History of the Federal Use of Eminent Domain
U.S. Department of Justice

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