Arizona Battles the Federal Government for Control of the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon has been called many things, but perhaps the most fitting title is "national treasure."

Legislators in Arizona, however, think that title is inaccurate. They claim that it's an "Arizona" treasure owned by the state of Arizona, and they want to make it official.

Arizona voters will decide a referendum on Nov. 6 that would amend the Arizona constitution and declare sovereign control over air, water, minerals, wildlife and public lands. If passed, Arizona could lay claim to all federal land in the state except military bases, Indian reservations, national parks and some wilderness areas—a total seizure of some 25 million acres. Once control has been claimed, Arizona legislators have vowed to expand logging and mining activities on those lands.

The vote is just the latest in an ongoing public lands battle in the West.{C}

In May, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed legislation that authorized his state to seize control of Federal lands by 2014 unless the government handed control back over to the state. The following month, Herbert met with leaders from four other western states—Idaho, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming—to plan strategies for them to do the same.

Leaders of western states with substantial amounts of federally-owned public land believe that government control is a detriment to the state, and robbing them of revenue and jobs. They want to regain control and use those lands for "better" things—like mining and logging.

Proponents of nationally-owned public land disagree, arguing that public land isn’t a burden but an asset that creates revenue and jobs.

The Outdoor Industry Association, for example, holds its annual convention in Salt Lake City, bringing in about 46,000 visitors and generating some $42 million annually for Utah. It's revenue that's in jeopardy after Utah's recent legislation.

". . .the industry is often surprised and frustrated by Utah's unfavorable positions on public lands policy. Beyond setting bad national precedent, these policies threaten the recreation infrastructure that is fundamental to the outdoor industry. Good economic policy cannot be divorced from bad public lands policy," said the OIA in a statement.

Another report recently released by the OIA states that the outdoor industry is worth some $646 billion in direct revenue, creates 6.1 million American jobs and generates nearly $40 billion each in Federal and state tax revenue.

On one hand, it's not hard to see why states with substantial amounts of federally-owned lands would want more control and believe that federal ownership is costing their state precious revenue and jobs. On the other, there is clear, fact-based evidence that displays the real value that public land and recreational-based tourism brings to state economies.

That said, you'll find little disagreement amongst conservation groups that federal land management policies and practices leave much to be desired. Federally-owned lands do not receive the same type of common-sense management approach that privately-owned lands do. Forest management, for example, has been virtually non-existent in many areas. And any forester worth his boots will tell you that a healthy forest is a managed forest—and management must include sensible timber thinning, either by chainsaw or fire. In many areas, that management simply is not happening under Federal control and many forests (and the wildlife that lives there) are suffering.

It is also clear that state legislatures have shown to be more willing to satisfy immediate needs rather than focus on long-term impacts. Some legislators in Utah, for example, have strenuously opposed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's 20-year moratorium on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, signed into effect in January arguing that the immediate influx of money from the creation of new uranium mines outweighs the long-term revenue stream from outdoors-based recreation.

This debate over public land ownership in the West has not been limited solely to state leaders. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's energy plan would turn control of oil and gas drilling decisions on federal lands over to the states—a move that has certainly sparked conversation amongst hunting and fishing organizations who believe such a move would put millions of acres of public land in jeopardy.

Nor is this issue exclusive to states in the West. Living in Michigan, a state with a significant amount of both state and federally-owned land, strikingly similar efforts are taking shape amongst legislators here.

I also understand this: The sentiment coming from states that federally-owned public land is "theirs" is false. Lands owned by the Federal government are owned by "us" as in "we, the people." Federally-owned public lands are funded and supported by the tax-paying citizens of these United States. If a state is to seize control of those lands, should we not expect to be fairly compensated for the taking of something that represents billions of dollars of tax-payer investment?

And how do the states propose to compensate you, as a tax-paying hunter or angler, for the loss of access and opportunity to hunt and fish should losses occur as a result of mining, logging or other practices?