Arizona voters face an IQ test on public lands

by Luther Propst

Arizona voters face two land-related ballot measures this November, and together, they reveal not just the state’s split personality but that of the West as well.

You can think of Proposition 119 as a respectable Dr. Jekyll, a 19th century gentleman who wants the state and federal government to exchange land to improve management and to protect the “mission readiness” of the state’s military bases. By carefully consolidating state and federal land, Prop. 119 would also promote solar energy while protecting public lands for conservation and public use. The measure requires an extraordinary degree of openness, including a requirement that the voters must specifically approve future land exchanges.

Prop. 119 is the result of intensive stakeholder involvement combined with old-fashioned collaboration. It was the kind where participants with diverse perspectives met and worked to balance competing interests. The Sierra Club’s Sandy Bahr, dean of Arizona¹s environmental advocates and nemesis of the Legislature¹s often bad ideas, along with John Nelson, retiring state senator and a thoughtful adult in the Legislature, hammered out the final compromise that brought everyone together.

Environmental groups, military support groups, economic development organizations and educators all support the measure. Many Democrats and Republicans also came on board, so the obvious question arises: Who’s against it?  The answer is that a cadre of Tea Party legislators opposes Prop. 119 out of the misplaced conviction that some odd bedfellows -- military and environmental groups -- had formed a conspiracy to deprive Arizonans of their land. Opponents also talk about foreign paratroopers massing on the border; the details are a bit murky.

In any event, here’s a cheer for the Legislature for putting Prop. 119 on the ballot, and here’s hoping that a majority of voters study the measure, because if they do, they will almost certainly vote “yes” as it is in the state’s best interest.

Proposition 120, however, can be thought of as Robert Louis Stevenson’s sinister character, Mr. Hyde. This measure authorizes Arizona to seize federal lands in the state, excluding Indian reservations and “land for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dock-yards and other needful buildings,” quoting the U.S. Constitution. And where are these dockyards in Arizona?  Maybe they were thinking about the dockyards at Fort Sumter.

But how in the world will Arizona manage an additional 27 million acres of public lands that include the Grand Canyon, Saguaro National Park, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and many other crown jewels of the public domain with no new money? Prop. 120 provides no funds for management.

Arizona already struggles to manage 9.3 million acres of state trust land ––  12.7 percent of the state. That land’s management is a tribute to the Herculean efforts of Land Commissioner Maria Baier and her recently slashed staff. The Arizona Legislature cut the Land Department’s annual general fund appropriation from $29 million in 2006, to $1.2 million in 2012. That’s not a typo. Appropriations dropped from $3.13 per acre in 2006, to 13 cents per acre today.  Compare that to the Bureau of Land Management, which spends somewhere around $3.79 per acre, and the National Park Service, which spends more than $20 per acre. And Prop. 120 would put the Legislature in charge of the Grand Canyon!

If this is a joke, it’s not funny. What’s also not funny is that the federal government gave the state of Arizona some 100,000 acres of public land to fund buildings for its Legislature, executive department and courts. The state Legislature expressed its thanks in 2009, by taking out a “pay-day loan” (also called a sale-leaseback deal with a private investor) against the building to cover its budget shortfall.

Prop. 120 seems to have come from outside Arizona because almost identical versions appeared in Utah and Colorado at the same time. Some say that the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known by the acronym ALEC, spoon-fed these measures to Western states. All speak of “returning” public lands managed by the federal government to the states. If return is the right verb here, I wonder whether ALEC thought about Arizona’s Native American tribes, who would be in line well ahead of the state Legislature if any returns are offered.

After the November election, it might be a good idea to examine the political, social and economic dynamics that led the Arizona Legislature to bring back both Dr. Jekyll and the fiendish Mr. Hyde through two ballot propositions. What factors prompted both a thoughtful measure that improves management of our public lands, and a childish act of insurrection that tells the federal government and everyone who loves our public lands to get lost?

Luther Propst is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He is the executive director of the Sonoran Institute, based in Tucson, Arizona.

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