The Arizona Senate Committee on Rural Affairs and Environment recently advanced three bills and one memorial demanding that all federally owned public lands in Arizona be transferred to the state immediately:
• HB 2321 tells the federal government to give up the title to all public lands in Arizona; • HB 2176 requires the State Land Commissioner put pressure on the government, and the Attorney General take legal action if the transfer doesn't occur; • HB 2318 establishes an interstate compact to help facilitate the process; • And the memorial, HCM 2005 "urges the federal government to dispose of public lands in, and transfer title to, Arizona."
The purported goal of the legislation is to increase state revenue by selling or leasing acquired lands, similar to how the state land trust system works. Supporters (like the Arizona Cattlemen's Association and the American Lands Council) argue that the federal government does a poor job of managing lands, and that the state is missing out on untapped natural resources, job opportunities, and billions of dollars.
Opponents say these measures wouldn't hold up in court because the federal control of certain lands was a condition for joining the union, but more importantly, they will create ecologic and economic problems because Arizona is even worse than the feds at managing lands. Groups opposing include the Sierra Club, the Salt River Project, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Arizona Public Health Association.
A similar bill was vetoed in 2012 by former-Governor Jan Brewer for being unconstitutional and impossible to fund, and Arizona voters rejected the measure when it was proposed as a ballot question the same year.
But the "Sagebrush Rebellion" is back, and according to Representative Brenda Barton, the primary sponsor of the bills, Arizona needs these lands because they will provide "funding for our schools and our counties, all things that are important to the state." She told the committee that "the system we have in Arizona can only create so much money, and because the majority of our state is locked up in different ownership, it becomes difficult for us to realize money off those lands."
There are four major categories of land in Arizona: federal land (which makes up 42.2 percent), Indian Trust land (27.6 percent), private land (17.5 percent), and state land trust (12.7 percent).
It's not clear how Arizona would manage (or sell off) each parcel of land it acquired, but Barton and others sure made it sound like the only noticeable change would be on the land title. Opponents are skeptical.
Senator Andrea Dalessandro, the only committee member to vote no on the measures, said many of her constituents are "concerned that they would lose access to public lands, and that rich people will buy up the land and they won't be able to hunt [or use the areas recreationally]."
In speaking out against the bill, Sandy Bahr, chapter director of the Arizona Sierra Club, began by saying, "public lands belong to all Americans. They don't belong to the state of Arizona. The people of Arizona have been very clear about not wanting the state to take control of federal lands."
She then reminded the committee that the state has a terrible track record of land management, and said it's ridiculous to take on more land while we're already struggling to find funding for the state parks and trust we currently have. "We've chosen not to address sustainable funding [and] we don't have the dollars to manage those [areas]."
The bills' supporters seemed to shrug off her points about funding and management, saying instead that acquiring federal land will bring in billions.
"I envy a state like North Dakota that has control over their lands, and can reap the benefits of oil and natural gas," said Committee chairwoman, Sylvia Allen. She then went on to say--oddly, since no one had mentioned secession--that this "is not about leaving the U.S.; it's about being like the other states."
From there, the conversation got weirder: Allen went on a tangent about the federal deficit, the inflation rate, and how much she resents endangered species--"we have so many Endangered Species on our backs every day," is actually what she said.
Then Barton cited the Louisiana Purchase as precedence for her bills: "It was bought by the federal government and many of those [areas] are now owned by the states." And added that it was unfair to Arizona if other states owned most of their land while we couldn't--"If it's good enough for most states to have control over their lands, why isn't it good enough for us?" She also explained that her "intention is not to sell all the land and pour concrete over every surface in Arizona." (Umm, thank you?)
Bahr clarified that yes, in fact "the bills actually contain provisions for selling off lands, and talk about wanting to increase revenue from them." She says these bills are a distraction from real problems. "Trying to say that having ownership of federal public lands would address educational issues in Arizona is just so far beyond the pale--I mean, seriously, what would you do? Have a sale on federal public lands? Well that would mean all land prices would drop. I mean, there seems not to even be an understanding of basic market principles."
Representative Bob Thorpe, primary sponsor of one of the bills, proposed "charging the federal government the going rate for property taxes." His bill also mandates that the Attorney General take legal action if the lands are not transferred by the end of 2025. (Good luck with that one.)
All four measures passed 4 to 1, and will advance in the Senate.
Got a tip? Send it to: Miriam Wasser.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.