Arizona lawmakers push to take over federal land

March 28, 2012

by Shaun McKinnon and, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, Arizona Republic

Another “sagebrush rebellion” is spreading through legislatures in Arizona and other Western states with a series of formal demands that the federal government hand over title to tens of millions of acres of forests, ranges and other public lands.

Arizona could claim as much as 25 million acres — all federal land in the state except military bases, Indian reservations, national parks and some wilderness areas. If the federal government fails to comply by the end of 2014, the states say they will begin sending property-tax bills to Washington, D.C.

While the original sagebrush rebellion grew out of conflicts over management of federal lands, often as specific as keeping a forest road open, the new takeover movement owes more to “tea party” politics, with a strong focus on reducing the scope of federal influence and opening land to more users.

Supporters say federal agencies have mismanaged the land and blocked access to natural resources, depriving the states of jobs and revenue from businesses ready to develop those resources. With the state in control, the backers say, loggers could return to forests where endangered species halted work decades ago and miners could regain access to ore outside the Grand Canyon.

“In the last 30 years, the radical environmental policies of these federal agencies have ground those industries to a halt — right into the ground — and almost killed them,” said state Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, the sponsor of the land-takeover measure, Senate Bill 1332.

Legal experts say the movement is based on a misreading of federal law and the U.S. Constitution and will almost certainly fail to survive court challenges. Conservation groups and other critics say the takeover would threaten iconic landscapes now protected by federal rules. States, those critics say, are ill-prepared to oversee so much land, with the roads, recreation areas and management needs that go along with it.

“In an era of apparent fiscal responsibility, why would the state seek billions of dollars of liability and management responsibility to assume ownership over the (25 million) acres or so of parks, forests and public lands in Arizona?” said Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition. “It is ill-conceived, it is irresponsible and it makes absolutely no sense.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a package of bills Friday that spells out his state’s intent to reclaim the land, and members of Utah’s congressional delegation have pledged support for the battle in Washington.

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