Lawmakers Pick Fight With Feds Over Public Lands

SALT LAKE CITY — Some Western lawmakers are pushing for a showdown with Washington over federally-controlled land, picking a fight on an issue that they say puts an economic stranglehold on their states.
by | March 7, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY — Some Western lawmakers are pushing for a showdown with Washington over federally-controlled land, picking a fight on an issue that they say puts an economic stranglehold on their states.

Republican legislators in Utah and Arizona are leading a charge to try to force the federal government to hand over control of public territory that makes up much of the West, insisting local leaders could manage it better.

"We're putting them on notice for them to cede it to us. And if they don't, we'll start taxing it," said Arizona state Sen. Al Melvin, who sponsored the legislation in that state.

Skeptics say state officials are likely to do more harm than good, especially to the environment, and stand to ruin what makes the region unique.

"How in the world do they think they could manage these federal public lands?" asked Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter.

Legal experts say the challenges are unconstitutional. But the fight is worth it for many who see the potential for millions of dollars in revenue from taxes, development rights or even the sale of lands.

Lawmakers also say the federal oversight is crippling industries like ranching, timber and mining, and overregulation has led to overgrown forests and massive forest fires.

"This is killing us," Melvin said.

State lawmakers say that with local control they could deliver jobs, money for education and even help balance the federal budget.

Utah lawmakers are moving forward with a plan that sets a 2014 deadline for the federal government to relinquish lands that aren't national parks, military installations or wilderness. The proposal that advanced Wednesday demands control of about 30 million acres — nearly 50 percent of the entire state.

Republican state Rep. Ken Ivory is leading the effort in Utah and helped draft model legislation for use in other states.

"If sovereignty means anything, it means not having to say pretty please or mother may I," Ivory said.

A similar bill is working its way through the Arizona Legislature, where lawmakers would put the federal government on roughly the same timeline.

About 40 percent of the land in Arizona is under federal control and about 30 percent is tribal land — leaving about 30 percent as state or private land.

About 70 percent of the land in Utah is controlled by the federal government.

The legislation in those two states is mainly directed at land controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which controls 245 million acres of land that's concentrated in 12 Western states.

Arizona's proposal includes a provision that, if the state does take possession, most of the proceeds from any land sold would be used to pay off the national debt.

Lawmakers in Utah and Arizona have said the legislation is endorsed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that advocates conservative ideals, and they expect it to eventually be introduced in other Western states.

But legal experts say the challenges won't get very far because any attempt by state legislatures to claim federal land is unconstitutional.

"That's not really open to dispute," said Joseph Feller, a professor who teaches natural resources law at Arizona State University.

"The states have absolutely no power to take over the federal public land," he said. "They've tried it before."

This was made clear during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and 1980s, when Western states pushed for greater control of federally owned public lands. Arizona passed legislation during that period that's similar to this year's proposal.

"Legally, it's a ridiculous claim. It would be thrown out in federal court in five seconds," said John Leshy, a law professor at University of California Hastings College of Law

Leshy, who also served on the President Obama's Interior Department transition team, added, "This is all just about cranky, symbolic politics."

State ownership of all that land could also be a big problem for the environment, said Bahr, of the Sierra Club.

"The state doesn't really have anything in place for land protection, and the attitude of the Legislature is one of abuse rather than protection," she said.

Local officials, however, argue that the state would at least be a better partner than federal officials.

Dirk Clayson, commissioner of rural Kane County, Utah, said the decisions about federal land access seem to be dictated more by "Washington politics" than logic.

"We really have a federal land management policy that ignores the needs of state, county or local residents," Clayson said. "There's risks, but the general feeling is we have a much more effective working relationship with the state. After all, they're only a four-hour automobile drive away from us."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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