Arizona voters face an IQ test on public lands

  • 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( He is the executive director of the Sonoran Institute, based in Tucson, Arizona.

Ecopolitidae says:
Oct 18, 2012 12:50 PM
RE: "By carefully consolidating state and federal land, Prop. 119 would also promote solar energy while protecting public lands for conservation and public use".

Could you please elaborate on precisely how Prop 119 will promote solar energy while protecting public lands?
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin says:
Oct 23, 2012 03:11 PM
Counting on a majority of Arizona's voters to pass an IQ test these days is like counting on the second coming of Jesus...
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler says:
Oct 23, 2012 03:53 PM
Why isn't it pointed out that 120 is likely unconstitutional and certainly will be subject to extensive and costly litigation if it's passed by the voters?
Bill Gore
Bill Gore says:
Oct 23, 2012 11:58 PM
HAHA-An IQ test for Arizona voters on public lands! Good luck with that! In a nutshell, Arizona is as dysfunctional towards the right as its neighbor California is towards the left. While California is carefully retracing the steps of the peruvian Shining Path, in a quest for ever more maoist equality and progressivism, Arizona seems to drunkenly goose step in a moron John Bircher reactionary path. Both of these propositions seem absurd, calculated to confuse the voter and play on cultural memes that are deeply ingrained: 'protect the military' (hence the lifetime home of bottom of the class at Annapolis John McCain), paranoia about the federal government, etc. It just never ends in Arizona. Bring back Evan Meacham for some sanity!!
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler says:
Oct 24, 2012 10:32 AM
Bill Gore--How does California, with the most idiotic regressive limitations on taxation, "retrace the steps of the Shining Path"?

Sendero Luminoso was a self-defined Maoist armed revolutionary movement. They were indiscriminate in their violence against nearly every segment of Peruvian society. Your comments about Arizona's dysfunction make some sense, but your comments about California are straight out of the theater of the absurd.
Bill Gore
Bill Gore says:
Oct 24, 2012 11:09 AM
Toby-I assume by 'idiotic regressive limitations on taxation' you refer to Prop.13. I'm sure the powerz in Sacramento would LOVE to repeal Prop. 13, and let the billions flow straight into Calpers, the better to secure their ultra-plush public employee retirements. My comments comparing California's political culture to the Sendero Luminoso ARE absurdist, because it is absurdist. And destructive. While the politicians in Sacramento and their special interest allies aren't quite up to chopping off heads (yet), their radical, hair-on-fire, ultra-kooky agendas will, IMHO ultimately utterly destroy the state.
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler says:
Oct 24, 2012 11:18 AM
Your comparisons, analogies, and general tone are a major part of the reason political discourse in this country is so polarized and dysfunctional. And your anti-union (or is it just anti-government?) hatred is indicative of your own dysfunction, not of the state of California's.
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin says:
Oct 24, 2012 12:08 PM
California has been under Republican control for 23 of the last 30 years, so it's hardly a leftist utopia. The problem is the right wing has been so successful at defining the far far lunatic right as the center that California only looks left compared to Arizona. It isn't by any stretch of the imagination. If you are so upset about CALPERS, why don't you get a state job and get one of those adequate but not generous pensions? There are plenty available, we spend over $100 billion a year and despite what you may have heard about us being broke, it's a lie. It's all about personal choice right? We can't help it if you choose a crappy public sector job with no benefits or pension, that is your choice and more power to you.
Bill Gore
Bill Gore says:
Oct 24, 2012 03:49 PM
My former home, America's Finest City-San Diego-has been brought to its knees by 140% pensions and extra-special benefits (medicare's not good enough so there's a special unfunded deluxe retiree medical benefit). Toby and Rusty, the hatred and dysfunction in your tone is so saddening, and really not very constructive. You need to see things as they actually are, not as you wish them to be....California proves, as if history were not enough of a witness, that the perfect really is the enemy of the good. As for California being under Republican control for 23 of the last 30 years: WHAT? Where-in Shasta County? What about Grey Davis? What about the legislature? Sadly, Arizona and California couldn't be further apart and more alike in their dysfunctional kookiness.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn says:
Oct 24, 2012 08:52 PM
Hi folks,

A comment on this thread has been deleted b/c it contained a personal attack. I realize that many of you are very passionate on this topic, and I appreciate the spirited disagreement, but please refrain from calling each other names.

Thanks a lot,

Stephanie P Ogburn
online editor
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin says:
Oct 24, 2012 10:05 PM
I don't know why I should continue this argument, you are obviously a knowledgeable and intelligent individual that I cannot best on the field of internet posts, but I got nothing better to do right now so here goes. Actually I do have something better to do, but I'm not doing it, I wonder why I feel compelled to post drivel on the internet when I could be doing something productive...oh well what the heck. Deukmejian - 1982-1990, Wilson - 1990-1998, Davis - 1998-2003, Schwarzenegger 2003-2010, Brown 2010-2012. That's 23 out of the last 30 years. Second, I admit to a certain amount of pride in my sarcastic wit, but hateful and dysfunctional? Methinks the lady doth project too much. Third, most large cities in California have their own pension funds and don't use CALPERS. I could do an internet query to see if San Diego does but that seems like a lot of work for no good reason. Also, I am not aware of any kind of public pension program in California that pays health insurance premiums, many allow you to maintain your coverage but you have to pay for it. Finally, San Diego has had Republican mayors since about the beginning of time. It's as far to the right as Orange County, incidentally one of the only if not the only California county to have ever claimed bankruptcy...
Bill Gore
Bill Gore says:
Oct 25, 2012 06:34 PM
Sure, I can take a break from running the business I moved out of California this year, to bash the California status quo. Besides, its fun! Just, for what its worth (nothing) I'm as critical of the right as I am of the left, so remember this as I rampage through your china shop... On the Wikipedia page for the California State legislature, under the section for the State Senate: "The Democrats have been the majority party in the Senate continuously since 1956."
Under the State Assembly: "The Democrats have been the majority party in the Assembly continuously since 1996."
Also, San Diego has had a majority of registered democrats for quite a while, and is able to boast of some of California's most 'progressive' legislators, folks like Christine Kehoe, Lori Saldana, Bob Filner, etc etc etc. But no matter-these are just the rantings of a former California taxpayer. Nothing personal....