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Legislature has bad case of 'land fever'

Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, once said, "There is no hunger like land hunger.” This may help explain why some legislators are again salivating over large tracts of Arizona’s topography.

Last week, the Senate approved legislation that would compel the federal government to transfer control of public lands to the state. The acreage in question amounts to some 46,000 square miles, or about 40 percent of Arizona.

If Washington, D.C., refuses, “We’ll start taxing it,” threatened bill sponsor Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson. "We're putting them on notice for them to cede it to us."

The measure, SB 1332, passed 19-9 along party lines and now goes to the House.

Specifically, the bill would require the U.S. government to “extinguish title to all public lands in Arizona and transfer title of those lands to the state.”

If the state decided to sell land, it would retain 5 percent of the net proceeds for deposit in the Permanent State School Fund. The rest would go to Washington, D.C., which proponents say the federal government could use to pay down the national debt. Any federal lands not relinquished to Arizona would be subject to a property tax beginning in 2015, under the bill. National parks, monuments, national forests and wildlife refuges would be exempt.

Supporters say the state would be a better steward of federal public lands since it is closer to the ground truth of local needs. Land sales could generate millions of dollars and result in jobs and funding for education. Proponents also argue that federal overregulation is hurting the ability of Arizona’s mining, ranching and timber industries to thrive.

"This is killing us," Melvin remarked to reporters. Moreover, backers claim the big federal footprint in Arizona’s geographic affairs has led, in part, to overgrown forests and massive wildfires.

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Politics of course is never far from a grievance. Underlying this legislation is the prickly issue of state sovereignty, an old argument with federalism dating back to the framing of the U.S. Constitution.

“States rights must prevail over federal over regulation [sic],” Melvin wrote on his Senate website, presumably alluding to Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that everyone is better off when governance is limited to “what his own eye may superintend.”

'If you guys want to secede from the union, please introduce that bill and I'm happy to debate it with you.'

Critics worry that the inertia of politics will give big business an advantage over other parties with a stake in public lands, especially environmental interests. Opponents of SB 1332 also question the state’s ability to marshal the infrastructure necessary to manage thousands of miles of federal lands, especially at a time when it can ill afford more spending.

Furthermore, legal experts argue that the bill is unconstitutional.

"The states have absolutely no power to take over the federal public land. They've tried it before," Arizona State University law professor Joseph Feller told The Arizona Capitol Times. Similar measures from Western states were rejected by the courts in the 1980s during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion.

Fundamentally, then, proponents contend that the state can better leverage the economic value of federal public lands without wrecking the environment. Opponents believe this is wishful thinking and say the entire matter is unlawful to boot.

The U.S. Interior Department issued this report card last summer:

  • Recreational use of federal lands supported more than 8,000 jobs in Arizona’s rural regions. In total, recreation supported about 21,364 jobs related to public lands and added nearly $2 billion to the state economy.
  • Activities involving energy, minerals, timber, grants, and government projects on federal lands created or supported over 7,900 jobs, adding $419 million more to Arizona’s economy.

Pardon the cliché, but that ain’t bad for government work. Could the state realize a greater return on investment if it were in the driver’s seat on federal lands? Color me skeptical.

The idea that a new land rush would spark an economic renaissance in the state’s mining, ranching and timber sectors is probably overblown. The National Mining Association reports that mining in Arizona generates less than 2 percent of the state’s GDP. Cattle and logging are important industries but neither is expected to see significant growth in the foreseeable future, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Arizona could also end up facing the paradox of selling off public lands now producing recreational dollars for rural communities – in effect, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

“If we didn’t have access to a lot of those lands, we would feel it sorely,” Kingman Mayor John Salem told The Associated Press.

There is, however, one certainty. Uncle Sam will strongly object to handing over or paying taxes on federal lands. And given the voluminous case law and constitutional precedents on the matter, the U.S. government isn’t likely to lose. Thus the time, effort and cost of litigating the proposed law in federal court will strike many taxpayers – the folks footing the bill – as highly problematic if not foolhardy.

Short of a declaration of war or seceding from the union to enforce SB 1332, it’s hard not to conclude that this legislation boils down to what one observer called “cranky, symbolic politics.”

In opposing the bill, House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, put it in more succinct terms: "If you guys want to secede from the union, please introduce that bill and I'm happy to debate it with you."

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Ed Perkins is a policy analyst at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, an ASU think tank.

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