An Arizona Lawmaker Still Wants the State to Take Over Federal Lands

The Eagletail Mountains Wilderness, about 65 miles west of Phoenix.
The Eagletail Mountains Wilderness, about 65 miles west of Phoenix. Bureau of Land Management via Flickr
On its face, Arizona State Representative Mark Finchem's bill to nudge federal lands into state management is not about transferring ownership.

Critics detect a ruse.

HB 2547
, a Republican-backed measure that would create a new state agency to manage federal public lands, cleared the House last week along party lines. It now sits in the Senate, where it has been assigned to committee. It appears to avoid the contentious issue of land transfers, which has prompted governors and voters to rebuff similar, previous measures.

In 2012, not only did Arizonans roundly reject a ballot initiative to transfer ownership of federal public lands to the state, but then-Governor Jan Brewer also vetoed a bill with a similar aim. Three years later, Governor Doug Ducey vetoed bills for federal-land transfers, although he did sign one to create a committee to study the issue.

This year, Finchem's resurrecting the land-transfer effort using a slightly different approach. This one purportedly aims for Arizona to manage — not own — federal lands that agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, and the National Parks Service currently oversee.

In a hearing on the bill, Finchem claimed that by creating a new state Department of Public Land Management, Arizona would be able to collect fees directly from the use of federal lands. The department would manage public federal lands to "promote" uses including transportation, mining, grazing, and timber production, the bill says. It also lists outdoor recreation and wilderness conservation as uses.

To opponents of the bill, the ploy is patently obvious: Finchem has tweaked an unpopular attempt to try to steer Arizona down the federal land-transfer path and open up those lands for mining, forestry, and other extractive uses, or to sell the land outright.

"It's a thinly veiled attempt to set a foundation for transferring federal lands to the state," said Scott Garlid, conservation director for the Arizona Wildlife Federation, who testified against the bill. “They’re just getting a little more subtle and sophisticated about how they’re pursuing it.”

Republican Representative Mark Finchem - ARIZONA HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Republican Representative Mark Finchem
Arizona House of Representatives
Garlid pointed to another bill, HB 2056, also sponsored by Finchem this session but never introduced, that sought to create an Arizona Department of Federal Land Management. Its purpose? "To provide for federal land management and facilitate the transfer of federal public lands to the state."

Why that bill never went anywhere while HB 2547 did is not clear. Finchem did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

In a rare point of consensus, groups across the political spectrum agree that states don't have the resources to manage federal lands. Environmentalists like Garlid, Republican former Governor Brewer and even the Koch Brothers-funded Cato Institute (which instead favors privatization of public lands) have said so.

According to the Congressional Research Service, states cannot take over the management or ownership of federal lands without Congressional authorization. In other words, state law is not enough to grant them that responsibility. But Congress does, at times, hand off lands to states.

In February, for instance, Congress passed the massive Natural Resources Management Act. Its highlights include creating new national monuments and designating more than 1 million acres of land as wilderness, but tucked in its more than 100 bills are several federal land swaps in Arizona, including handing off 8,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land to La Paz County, that were supported by Senator Kyrsten Sinema. The measure now awaits President Trump's signature.

In Arizona, environmentalists like Garlid fear that transferring lands to the state would have a detrimental effect on ecology and wildlife. The state simply doesn't have the resources for crucial tasks, like fighting forest fires, on state or private lands, never mind federal ones.

Over the past decade, Arizona has received varying levels of federal reimbursements each year for its fire suppression efforts; in 2011, the feds forked over more than $26 million. If the state took over federal lands and had to fund firefighting on those too, in a bad fire year, "that would totally bust the budget of the state," Garlid said.

Arizona also has a pretty woeful record as a warden of its own lands, Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, pointed out.

"We all know what has happened recently with our state parks," she said, referring to ousted, scandal-riddled Parks Department Director Sue Black and the revelations, first reported by Phoenix New Times, that Parks bulldozed an Native American archaeological site under Black's watch.

State oversight of lands might also exempt them from environmental laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act, and the public review that those policies entail, Bahr said. Industries like development and mining are extremely powerful in Arizona, she added, questioning whether the state would simply cave to those interests if it managed federal land.

"If it actually happened, this could expedite some bad projects that might otherwise not go forward," Bahr said, referring to HB 2547.

Attempts to transfer federal public lands to states are nothing new in the West. In the 1970s and '80s, demand for states to have a greater say in the management of federal lands blossomed into a multistate movement called the Sagebrush Rebellion.

Some members of the Sagebrush Rebellion sought federal land transfers; others wanted less regulation. The "rebellion" was not wholly grassroots; some of its groups were funded by mining or and other extractive industries. The movement fizzled out but has had a resurgence in recent years, with several Western states trying again to adopt legislation giving them greater control over federal land.

Among them are Arizona and neighboring Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Their efforts are, once again, supported by industry interests and their backers, like the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. The Trump administration has also been sympathetic to their aims by rolling back regulations and delegating more management authority to states.

Finchem's bill has 23 Republican co-sponsors in the House and seven in the Senate. The Governor's office, the Bureau of Land Management, and a spokesperson for the State Land Trust all declined to comment while the bill was pending.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.