Western voters should crusade to force the federal government to turn its vast holdings over to the states, Utah state lawmaker Ken Ivory told about 65 people in a provocative speech in Payson Wednesday.
Five western states have already passed resolutions calling on the federal government to fulfill a century-old promise to sell off federal lands and put the mostly federally-owned western states on an equal footing with the mostly privately owned eastern states.
Ivory predicted that the federal government will soon go broke and quit providing the $16 billion it gives to the state annually — a whopping 54 percent of the state budget. Western states can survive the coming fiscal meltdown only by taking control of federal lands and either selling them off or leasing them to ranchers, miners and loggers, he said.
“How do we take care of ourselves,” he asked an intent audience that included three Payson council members, the Payson superintendent of schools, Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin and Arizona State Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson).
“After Washington completes the destruction of the currency, we’ll still be responsible. The lands and resources are the only resource big enough. Failure is not an option. This is the only way to go.”
Arizona voters last year overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure requiring the state to take control of federal lands, which was authored by State Sen. Chester Crandell (R-Heber). However, Ivory said citizen activists must force the federal government to sell off its vast western holdings before it’s too late.
Critics of the movement pushed by the American Lands Council say it is unconstitutional. They fear that giving the states control of federal lands would actually worsen management, harm tourism and recreation and result in giveaways to logging, ranching and mining interests.
However, critics of federal management say the federal ownership of millions of acres of land in Arizona has created unhealthy, fire-prone forests and crippled rural communities like Payson. As an example, they point to the crippling, years-long delay and steep costs Payson has faced in trying to buy 260 acres of Forest Service land to build a university vital to the economic development of the community.
Ivory said the enabling legislation that created the western states included a federal promise to dispose of the lands over which it retained ownership. That promise takes precedence over language in the enabling act that said “the people inhabiting said proposed State do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated and ungranted public lands,” he insisted.
Ivory said the language disclaiming state ownership of the land the federal government retained also occurs in the statehood documents of states that ended up with almost no remaining federal land in their boundaries.
In Gila County, only 1.5 percent of the land is privately owned and on the tax rolls. The U.S. Forest Service remains the largest landowner in the county, with more than half of the total lands.
Ivory said Congress in 1976 adopted legislation that shifted declared federal policy from disposing of federal land to retaining the lands it still had — unless the sale of a particular piece of land would serve the national interest. At that time, Congress also agreed to pay states about 13 percent of the taxes states would have collected from private land and also to make payments to rural schools without enough private land in the district to generate the property taxes needed to support school budgets.
However, faced with the budget woes of the past several years Congress has drastically cut those promised payments, said Ivory.
Ivory cited court cases and historical documents that he insisted demonstrated that Congress could not simply vote to change the promises made when states joined the union — including the promise to dispose of the federal lands it retained.
Ivory’s impassioned call for the states to take ownership of federal lands echoes the passion of the Sagebrush Rebellion decades ago, where Rep. Barton got her political start.
Barton noted that the State Legislature approved a resolution similar to Utah’s, but Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it, calling it unconstitutional and citing several provisions involving the privatization of public land. Barton said she’s ready to introduce new legislation in the upcoming session, eliminating some of the provisions to which the governor objected.
The urgency of Ivory’s case rested on the assertion that the spiraling federal debt and unfunded promises to finance Medicare and Social Security will bankrupt the federal government, resulting in the cutoff of money that covers more than half of state spending — mostly for programs like welfare and the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. He stressed education spending, but most of that money comes from property taxes and state revenue.
The only way the state can generate enough revenue to make up for the billions in federal payments it will lose when the United States goes broke is to take control of the millions of acres of federal land and either sell it or generate revenue from it.
“If we let this go, we’re going to answer for this,” he said.
He also bitterly criticized management of federal lands, especially the rise in catastrophic wildfires. He noted that the federal failure to thin the forests amounted to a breech of national security and pointed out a magazine published by Osama bin Laden included a plan to terrorize the U.S. by setting fire to the forests.
He said studies show that the federal government actually loses money on its management of public lands. By contrast, he said, the state government turns a profit on managing its lands.
However, state-owned lands have also proven vulnerable to wildfires. For instance, the Yarnell fire that that killed a Prescott hotshot crew actually burned mostly on state-owned lands.
Moreover, the state has struggled to manage even prime tourist destinations, like Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, where frequent closures due to the State Legislature’s deep cuts in the state park budget has helped drive visitation down from a peak of 95,000 to about 65,000.
Nonetheless, he said only turning federal lands over to the state could prevent disaster and boost the state’s economy.
“We’ve got nowhere to go. If we fail, it’s not because it’s illegal or impossible or unconstitutional, it’s because we lacked knowledge and courage,” he concluded.