A controversial ballot measure intended to allow the state to seize control of millions of acres of federal land has drawn a sharp divide between two slates of candidates seeking to represent Rim Country in the state Legislature.
Proposition 120 would amend the Arizona Constitution to revoke the state’s 1920 agreement to “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated and ungranted public lands.”
The amendment would also give the state Legislature exclusive control over air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources.
The Legislature voted along party lines to put the measure on the ballot. Rep. Chester Crandell (R-Heber) co-authored the law referring the amendment to the ballot, which passed on a party-line vote. Crandell represented Rim Country in the old legislative district and is now seeking to move up to the Senate in the dramatically redrawn district.
Rep. Tom Chabin (D-Flagstaff) also wants to move up to the Senate, running in the new state legislative District 6, which includes both Flagstaff and Payson. The former school board member and county supervisor opposes Prop. 120 and in one published interview said “this bid for sovereignty goes against being a state of the union.”
The two Republican candidates for the two seats in the state House representing Rim Country have also strongly supported Prop. 120, which they say would allow the state to revive the timber and ranching industry, thin overgrown forests, sell off land to boost rural economies and relax burdensome regulations. Rep. Brenda Barton, who moved to Payson to run in the redrawn district, and Flagstaff Tea Party head Bob Thorpe have both said the state must launch what amounts to a new revolution to regain control of federal lands.
On the Democratic side, Sedona businesswoman and child advocate Angela LeFevre and retired economic development director Doug Ballard are running on a “jobs” ticket. They have both said the Legislature must focus on reviving the economy and creating jobs rather than wasting time on an effort to seize control that federal courts will almost certainly overturn.
The advocates for Proposition 120 maintain that the federal government never fulfilled an implicit promise to eventually sell off most of the land it kept after the territory became a state in 1910.
Advocates say western states have been treated like second-class citizens, since the original 13 colonies controlled almost all of their own land.
State Sen. Sylvia Allen, who has represented Rim Country for the past two years, wrote, “Western states are at a distinct disadvantage compared to the states east of the Mississippi because we don’t have control of all the land within our borders. The federal government controls and mismanages a major part of our land and interferes with mining, ranching, farming, grazing, water management and many other aspects that are vital to our state economy, education, and our general prosperity.”
Although the enabling legislation that allowed Arizona to become a state never included any federal promise to sell the land it retained, other legal precedents have held that states should remain on an “equal footing,” no matter when they entered the union. Advocates for Proposition 120 maintain that the federal government’s failure to put the land it retained in private hands meant the western states never got that “equal footing” legally.
In rural areas like Gila County, the federal government owns more than 95 percent of the land. The federal government does make Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) in rural areas to compensate for having almost all of the land kept off the property tax rolls. However that amounts to about $32 million annually statewide, far less than the millions of acres of land would yield if they were on the tax rolls.
Advocates point to things like Payson’s years-long struggle to buy from the Forest Service 260 acres for a university site that Congress designated for sale 12 years ago as an example of the crippling effect on local economies of having so much land in federal hands. Moreover, advocates for Proposition 120 point to a century of Forest Service policies that have resulted in a conversion of a fire-adapted forest into a crown-fire-prone tree thicket.
However, critics of the measure say that the state doesn’t have the resources to manage the millions of acres of federal land, which could potentially include national parks like the Grand Canyon. They point to the neglect and near-dismantlement of the state parks system in the past few years to question the state’s ability to manage the extensive federal holdings.
The Arizona Republic referred to the ballot measure as an “ideological tantrum that’s gone too far.”
The Arizona Wilderness Coalition maintains the state would assume billions of dollars in liability if it displaced federal agencies that now employ thousands of Arizona residents and spend billions annually on land management in the state.
The Sierra Club has opposed the measure on the grounds it would undermine the protections offered by federal laws, like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. Many of the requirements of those laws apply to the federal government, but not to state government.
Many opponents maintain that the whole crusade amounts to a waste of time and effort, since federal courts have repeatedly ruled that federal law takes precedence over state law and that states have no power to nullify federal law, including the landmark Cooper v. Aaron case in 1958. The federal government acquired much of Arizona from Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War. The federal government acquired the rest of the territory through the Gadsen Purchase. By contrast, the 13 original colonies entered the union with very little public land.
As a result, a number of independent legal scholars have concluded that the federal courts would quickly overturn the measure even if it passes, according to an analysis of the proposition published by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy.