Its chief proponent insists it’s a realistic effort to force the federal government to surrender its title to close to 73 million acres of land in Arizona.
But others who support Proposition 120 concede that it may be a legally ineffective measure, as the likelihood of approval by Congress is virtually nil.
Still, they say there is a legitimate reason for Arizona voters to declare sovereignty over all that federal land. And it could make a difference, even without congressional action.
On paper the idea behind Proposition 120 is simple. It would add a section to the Arizona Constitution declaring the “sovereign and exclusive authority over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within its border.’’
Central to the idea is frustration with federal management of its lands within the state.
Rep. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, the sponsor of the legislation that put the issue on the ballot, said a prime example has been the forests.
“We had a thriving forest industry back in the 70s and 80s,’’ he said, with timber companies harvesting logs on federal lands. “That’s when all the (environmental) lawsuits started.’’
That, in turn, led to a reticence of federal agencies to give the go-ahead to not only logging projects but also thinning. And the result, Crandell said, has been the huge wildfires that have devastated large portions of the state.
“And what have we accomplished?’’ he continued. “We’ve burned up the habitat of the spotted owl and the goshawk as well.’’
Jim Klinker, chief administrative officer of the Arizona Farm Bureau sees it in more basic terms.
“Those forests should have been thinned, we should have had timbering out there, we should encourage grazing on those lands, put ranchers out there to manage it, put foresters out there to manage these lands working with these federal agencies,’’ he said. “But that has broken down.’’
And that gets to the essence of Klinker’s complaint.
He said groups that seek to do something on federal lands, like grazing, used to be able to work with federal employees on the ground in Arizona. More to the point, they could get quick answers. That’s no longer the case.
“There’s little response, if you will, from the federal agencies,’’ he said.
“It seems to get worse and worse,’’ Klinker continued. “The bureaucracy that dictates from Washington, D.C. to the Forest Service and BLM land is just getting so bureaucratic you can’t get anything done on the ground.’’
The measure has run into a wall of opposition, largely from the environmental community fearful of the management practices of state agencies reporting to state elected officials.
But Steve Arnquist of the Arizona League of Conservation Voters, said there are more practical arguments against the measure. One is that it makes no sense to let each of the 50 states have its own set of environmental rules and regulations -- and not have a baseline safe level of clean air and clean water.
“Let’s say one state has a more aggressive Clean Air Act standard than the state next to it,’’ he said. “But the air doesn’t know when to stay in the state.’’
And he rejected arguments that there may be legitimate reasons to let states set some of their own environmental regulations, such as that the control of dust is quite different in the desert than it might be back East.
“I would respond to that that human lungs are the same in all the states,’’ Arnquist said.
“We know what the maximum levels of certain pollutants are before it starts making people sick,’’ he said. “And that’s the same whether you’re in Pennsylvania or you’re in Arizona.’’
Perhaps the bigger question is whether Arizona could actually manage all those federal lands. Arnquist said the state has struggled just to keep its parks open.
Arnquist is not alone in those concerns. Earlier this year the Legislature approved a virtually identical measure, only to have it vetoed. Gov. Jan Brewer said while she shares the frustration of how the state’s natural resources are being managed, this is not the answer. She said if the federal government were to somehow accede to the demand, the state is totally unprepared to take over close to 73 million acres of federal land.
Crandell said that bill had one key difference: It had a provision which would have allowed the state to sell off what it got, pocketing 5 percent and giving the remainder to the feds. He said Arizona could manage all those lands, collecting the fees and using them to help balance the state budget and keep taxes low.
Klinker, however, has his doubts.
“I don’t think these lands could be turned over overnight to the states,’’ he said. “But there could be a system in place that moved more decision making back here to the local level.’’
And that, from Klinker’s perspective, could be the best possible outcome, especially with the belief that the vote would be largely symbolic absent congressional approval.
“But Klinker figures it would send a message to Washington that there needs to be more local control. And, that, he said, might goad federal agencies into giving their staffers on the ground here more authority to actually make decisions.