The Saguaro Rebellion

When Arizona voters head to the polls in nine days, they’ll be asked to proclaim whether they believe the federal or state government should control 25 million acres of public lands in their state, including national forests and national parks like the Grand Canyon.

Although Proposition 120 on the Arizona ballot is legally toothless, it could be a potent political statement of public frustration over the administration of federal lands.

Frustration over the vagaries of federal land management is understandable to people who live in the West, but we believe the effort to claim state control of those lands is a mistake.

Call it the Saguaro Rebellion, a direct descendant of the Sagebrush Rebellion that began in Nevada and Utah in the 1980s, and found more than a few converts in Colorado. Proposition 120 seeks to grant Arizona “sovereign and exclusive authority over the air, water, public lands, minerals and all other natural resources within its boundaries.”

There’s no doubt federal control of vast swaths of the West has caused headaches for a century and more. Management policies swing wildly from one administration to another, sometimes encouraging natural resource extraction and other times actively opposing it.

While public input is sought for land decisions, it often seems pro forma, designed to support decisions already made.

Even when federal land managers clearly listen to and support local concerns, the time it takes to confirm a decision in Washington and deal with legal challenges can seem endless.

But there are strong arguments against state takover of these lands. First, spectacular landscapes such as the Grand Canyon, Colorado National Monument, national forests and BLM lands are national treasures belonging to all Americans. They shouldn’t be transferred to states to be sold off or developed in ways that neglect national needs.

Secondly, it’s unlikely state governments would have the resources to manage the lands. Arizona, like Colorado, has significantly cut funds to manage its state parks in recent years. Taking over the federal lands would likely lead to poorer management, higher fees or sales of the lands.

Finally, the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority to dispose of and make rules regarding “the Territory or Property belonging to the United States,” and the Supremacy Clause means federal law trumps conflicting state law.

Those upset about federal management of public lands should devote their energy to getting Congress to mandate federal agencies do more to engage neighboring communities in useful dialogue — as some individual land managers already do — rather than pushing meaningless gestures about state claims to federal lands.


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