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Sagebrush rebellion rides again

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jackiewheeler | Apr 23, 2012 01:00 AM

I don’t relish this role, you know. If you happened to have read some of my other posts you may have noticed a certain pattern. Sure, there’s the occasional outlier column that addresses toilets, or aspen trees, or what have you, but on a pretty regular basis I’m the lady who sheepishly discusses all the nut-ball and downright disturbing stuff that goes on in my home state, Arizona.

I was really hoping that this could be another outlier week, where I could write about something pleasant and hopeful (or at least amusing) on the Western environmental front. Believe me, I looked, but around here most of those kind of stories have been obscured by news about the latest round of scandals, subpoenas, and indictments of local officials. Squeezed in between are the antics of the loony state legislature, who must pass a budget very soon but cannot tear themselves away from such issues as birth control, bibles in schools, and seizure of federal lands. Regarding the latter, I can modestly boast that for once, the craziness isn’t all homegrown.

Arizona Senate Bill 1332 proclaims that “ON OR BEFORE DECEMBER 31, 2014, THE UNITED STATES SHALL EXTINGUISH TITLE TO ALL PUBLIC LANDS IN AND TRANSFER TITLE TO THIS STATE.” If the feds fail to obey this demand, “BEGINNING IN 2015, ALL PUBLIC LANDS TO WHICH THE UNITED STATES HAS NOT EXTINGUISHED AND TRANSFERRED TITLE TO THIS STATE … ARE SUBJECT TO ASSESSMENT, LEVY AND taxation.” If this attempted land-grab sounds familiar, it may be because we got the idea from Utah and/or from ALEC, the national conservative group that helpfully writes industry-friendly “model legislation” for politicians to sponsor. Both the Utah bill, which passed and was enthusiastically signed by Governor Herbert, and ALEC’s connection to it have received considerable coverage in the past few months.

Expert, reasoned responses to this shot across the federal bow have already been voiced by representatives of legal and environmental groups (for example, see this for a response from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and this from Arizona and Utah legal scholars). Their arguments rightly have to do with constitutionality, contractual obligation, and environmental responsibility. The problem, in my opinion, is that rationality of this sort played little if any role in the inception of the idea. Greed and petulance were carefully engineered into a “state’s rights” platform, in a cynical attempt to convince voters that claiming federal land would help schools and state budgets and Uncle Jim who’s outraged about the places he can’t ride his quad. Arizona is so financially dysfunctional it had to basically pawn its capitol buildings in 2010.  Does a state like this have any business managing its own checkbook, let alone millions of acres of desert and forest that belong to all U.S. citizens? Like the last sagebrush rebellion, I hope this one rides into the sunset.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

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

Heather Hansen
Heather Hansen
Apr 24, 2012 09:24 AM
Don't take it personally, Jackie. The Utah Senate passed two bills last month claiming 30m acres of fed land- never mind the Constitution. I wish it could be written off as lunacy but, scarier still, it is fueled by a calculated greed.
Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Apr 27, 2012 01:53 PM
If these bills were ever to come to fruition, they would result in massive land sales, unfunded state land management, and all kinds of people doing whatever they could to get their hands on the money from the land sales. It would be interesting.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Apr 27, 2012 06:36 PM
I chuckle and cringe at the same time with reports of states trying to 'reclaim' federal land. The humor is because the pols involved seem to forget that it was all federal land before their particular state ever existed and there is nothing in the constitution that says the feds can't reserve lands in the public interest and indeed, the Supreme court has repeatedly said it could. It's hard to believe anyone could be dense enough, or dumb enough, to think after all this time that there's a constitutional argument to be made.

The shudder is for what the lands would become were the states actually able to convince the feds to turn it over. I think we'd see a land rush speculation that would stagger the imagination and the idea of public recreational use of land would disappear almost overnight. The really sad part is that some fairly large proportion of our citizenry would actually relish the Disney-Yosemite experience or the Walmart-wilderness.

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