Arizona Senate passes bill demanding return of federal lands

PHOENIX Wed Apr 25, 2012 7:43pm EDT

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PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona is poised to join next-door neighbor Utah in demanding the U.S. government transfer title to millions of acres of federal property to the state, fanning a renewed "sagebrush revolt" over control of public lands in the West.

The Arizona state Senate, on a 19-9 vote, gave final legislative approval on Wednesday to a measure calling for federal agencies to relinquish roughly 48,000 square miles (124,000 sq km) of acreage they own in the Grand Canyon state by 2015.

The Republican-backed bill was approved by the state House of Representatives on Monday. It now goes to Republican Governor Jan Brewer, who has five days once the bill reaches her desk to sign or veto it. Otherwise, it becomes law automatically.

Arizona would be the second U.S. state to enact such a law after Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill last month seeking to reclaim some 30 million acres (12 million hectares) of federally owned land in his state, shrugging off warnings from state attorneys that the measure was likely unconstitutional and would lead to a protracted yet futile legal battle.

Arizona Senator Al Melvin, chief sponsor of the bill in his state, insisted the measure amounted to more than unenforceable political rhetoric, as some critics have suggested.

"This is not symbolic at all," he told Reuters. "We feel this is constitutional and we have legal grounds to do this."

Other Western legislatures are said to be weighing similar bills in what is shaping up as a new front in a decades-old conflict - known as the sagebrush rebellion - between the federal government and big public-land states over control of their resources.

The moves cap years of indignation among political conservatives in big Western states over the fact that vast tracts of their land mass are owned by federal agencies, much of it by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management.

In Arizona, the U.S. federal government controls 42 percent of the land mass, compared with some 60 percent in Utah.

POTENTIAL TAX BASE

Supporters of the Arizona bill have complained that federal control puts too much land off-limits to commercial activities, such as energy development, mining, logging and grazing - limiting the state's potential tax base for schools and other public services.

They also accuse the government of badly managing its lands. Melvin pointed to record wildfires that ravaged the state's national forests last year, saying timber-management practices of the U.S. Forest Service were largely to blame.

They see the government as too closely aligned with environmental groups, which largely oppose efforts to loosen federal controls. Conservationists say less federal management would lead to degradation of the land and its wildlife while allowing a virtual giveaway of publicly owned natural resources.

Under Arizona's bill, the state would seek title to most of the state's federal acreage, including national monuments, national forests and national wildlife refuges. Military bases and national parks are exempt, as are Indian reservations.

The bill would also allow Arizona to sell off the land it receives, retaining 5 percent of the net proceeds, with the rest going to the federal government.

Critics blasted the measure, saying its sponsors were out of touch with most of Arizona's voters.

"These lands belong to all of us as Americans, and to future generations of Americans," said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the environmental group Sierra Club.

Melvin said at least four other states were reviewing similar efforts, including Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico and Wyoming.

(Reporting by David Schwartz. Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)

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