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New group presses for use of eminent domain to fill gaps in long-distance trails; others not so sure

There are 11 designated national scenic trails stretching across nearly 18,000 miles in the U.S. But there are more than 4,000 miles of privately owned “gaps” in the system that leave routes vulnerable to a change in ownership or a landowner’s whims. Typically, the government or nonprofit trail associations work to fill such gaps by purchasing land from willing sellers. But Jim Kern, founder of a new advocacy group called Hiking Trails for America, says the only way to protect every mile of those trails forever is through the use of eminent domain.

A power granted by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, eminent domain allows federal, state, and local governments to acquire private land for public use in exchange for “just compensation.” The fair market value paid out is supposed to reflect the highest possible price that a buyer and seller would agree to under normal, unpressured circumstances on the open market. Payouts take into account factors like comparable property values or the income-generating potential of the asset. When the two sides can’t agree on an amount, it goes to court, where the price is determined.

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