Arizona voters to weigh in on states' rights measure

Nov 2, 2012

In the latest episode of tug-o-war playing out between states’ rights and public lands, Arizona residents will be casting their votes Nov. 6 on a hotly contested ballot measure that would attempt to reclaim millions of acres of federal lands within Arizona’s borders as property of the state.

Proposition 120 calls for a change in the Arizona Constitution that “declares its sovereign and exclusive authority and jurisdiction over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife, and other natural resources within its boundaries.”

According to a report in E&E Greenwire, the measure would effectively lay claim to “20 national park units, six national forests, 90 wilderness areas, and dozens of wildlife refuges and units of the National Conservation Lands system,” in addition to land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Indian reservations, federal buildings, post offices, and other properties explicitly ceded to the federal government are exempted from the measure.

Supporters of Proposition 120 argue that the bill would better allow Arizona to manage its vast rangelands and forests, many of which have been recently devastated by catastrophic wild fires.

“Our recommendation is a ‘yes’ vote,” said Andy Groseta, president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association. “Decades of mismanagement on our federal lands has caused these catastrophic wildfires. The status quo management on our federal lands is not working. It’s very apparent.”

Groseta said that overgrowth of timber and forage due to federal restrictions has fueled the unusually destructive fires in recent years, wiping out protected species and habitat as well as valuable natural resources like timber and grazing.

Supporters also maintain that Arizona should be able to regulate mining within its borders in order to profit from natural resource extraction in order to support its tax base and fund public education. Due to federal restrictions, like a recent 20-year moratorium placed on new uranium mining claims on a million-acre “buffer-zone” surrounding Grand Canyon National Park, substantial mineral resources currently remain off-limits.

But opponents fear state management would open up currently protected landscapes to mining, drilling, and logging, permanently damaging their scenic and environmental qualities. The bill has drawn particular censure because it seeks to transfer ownership of important national landmarks like Grand Canyon National Park, considered by many to be “national treasures,” to the state of Arizona, raising nightmare images of mining works and tailings piles in the middle of iconic landmarks.

Sandy Bahr, conservation director for the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, maintained that the state did not have the resources to manage the federal lands within its borders, let alone the ability to manage them wisely.

“We think it’s pretty irresponsible,” Bahr told E&E Greenwire. “And clearly our legislature would have no capacity to manage these public lands. The thought of the legislature having any control over places like the Grand Canyon frankly scares us.”

Sponsored by state Rep. and rancher Chester Crandell (R), Proposition 120 represents the second recent attempt of conservative Arizona lawmakers to pass legislation establishing the state’s claim over federal lands. A previous attempt to pass a bill laying claim to some 48,000 square miles of federal land within Arizona’s borders breezed through the Arizona House and Senate in April, only to be vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer (R).

In pursuing its claim to federal land, Arizona follows in the footsteps of its northern neighbor Utah, which passed a law in March calling for the return of the vast majority of federal land to the state by 2014. However, the Utah bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert (R), stops short of the Arizona measure by making no claims to national parks or wilderness areas.

Other states, including Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming, are understood to be considering similar legislation.

The groundswell of recent moves to reclaim federal lands across the western states is clearly reminiscent of the “Sagebrush Rebellion” movement of the ’70s and ’80s. It remains to be seen, however, if the current movement will create any permanently lasting changes to the relationship between western states and their federal landlords, who in many cases own more than 50 percent of the land within these states’ borders.

If one thing is certain, it is that the federal government is not likely to relinquish its claim to public lands across the West without a protracted legal battle.

In the meantime, supporters of Proposition 120 are just hoping they can get Arizona voters to buy into the idea that Arizona should jump on the bandwagon.

“Our natural resources are going up in smoke,” said Groseta. “This is an effort to change management on those lands. We’re going to put it to the test and see what the people think.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent