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A new vision for public lands

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John Freemuth | Feb 22, 2013 04:15 PM

In 2012, the seemingly endless argument over what level of government ought to be the manager over part of the federal land estate flared up again, led by individuals in Utah and Arizona. In Arizona, in March, the state legislature passed a bill that called for federal land agencies to give up title to roughly 48,000 square miles of federal land by 2015. The bill was vetoed by Arizona governor Jan Brewer for reasons including cost and legal uncertainties, but action did not end.

Proposition 120 was placed on the November ballot for a vote by Arizonans. The proposition called for the federal government to relinquish most non-Native American public land within the state, including Grand Canyon National Park. Specifically, it stated that Arizona “declares its sovereign and exclusive authority and jurisdiction over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within its boundaries.”  Arguments ranged from those touting state sovereignty and promising to protect “Grand Canyon State Park," through those asserting that federal land ownership was unconstitutional. The proposition failed by a vote of 67.7% to 32.3%.

In Utah action was legislative. That body passed HB 148, called the “Transfer of Public Lands Act and Related Study.” The law required the United States to extinguish title to public lands and transfer title to those lands to the state on or before December 31, 2014.  The law mandated a study by Utah’s Constitutional Defense Council to be given to the 2013 general session of the legislature. The report admitted to a governing assumption that “those closest to, and whose lives are most directly impacted by, these public lands are better situated to make decisions regarding the use and enjoyment of these lands.”  By the end of the report, however, there was evidence that its authors realized that they were dealing with a pretty big issue:

The transfer of public lands contemplated by H.B. 148 is a bold initiative that will require a re-examination of public lands policy on a federal, state and county level. This re-examination must be fully informed and its implications thoughtfully evaluated. The many interests that have become institutionalized over the course of the past century must be identified, studied and given a voice in what must be characterized as a process. This process should have as its goal the development of a new vision for the public lands that better meets the economic, energy, education and recreation needs of today.

Similar movements soon began in Idaho and New Mexico. It thus seems clear that historic Western grievances regarding federal land management have come to the surface again.

While these grievances have always been stirring to a degree,  a new counterperspective regarding federal lands is bound to cause consternation, agreement and everything in between from the “institutionalized interests” mentioned above. That perspective, driven primarily by conservation biologists and related scientists,  stresses the importance of the federal lands in the protection of biodiversity, and suggests that resource use of those lands (multiple use) be deemphasized in some cases and areas  in order to protect biodiversity. This is because what we have designated as “protected areas” in the U.S. do not sufficiently protect biodiversity. But likewise, certain protected areas (think parks, wilderness, national monuments and so on) ought to be “degazetted” (that is removed from their legal protection status) because they don’t do that much for biodiversity, either. In other words, we need a grand rethinking of the purpose and scope of federal lands in the name of biodiversity.

So here we have it. A call for more multiple use and local control versus a call for more protection, with a potential wildcard on the table that not all currently-protected areas need so be. I wonder where this is all going to go.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

John Freemuth is a professor of political science and public policy at Boise "State" University.

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