PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on Monday vetoed a bill demanding the U.S. government turn over millions of acres of its property to the state, dealing a surprise blow to the “sagebrush revolt” against federal control over vast tracts of land in the West.
The much-publicized measure, which cleared the Republican-dominated Arizona legislature last month, called for federal agencies to relinquish title to roughly 48,000 square miles (124,000 square km) of land they hold in the Grand Canyon state by 2015.
Brewer, a Republican and staunch conservative who had been widely expected to support the measure, said in a statement that the legislation failed to “identify an enforceable cause of action to force federal lands to be transferred to the state.”
“I am also concerned about the lack of certainty this legislation could create for individuals holding existing leases on federal lands. Given the difficult economic times, I do not believe this is the time to add to that uncertainty,” she said.
The bill, SB 1332, was similar to legislation signed into law by Governor Gary Herbert in the neighboring state of Utah in March in a revival of a Republican drive to diminish federal land ownership in the West.
Utah’s law seeks to claim some 47,000 square miles (122,000 square km) of federal property and was enacted despite warnings from state attorneys that it was likely unconstitutional and would trigger a costly and ultimately futile legal battle.
The moves in Utah and Arizona cap years of rising indignation among political conservatives in several big Western states over the fact that major portions of their territory are owned by various federal agencies, much of it by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.
The decades-old federal-state conflict in the West, widely known as the sagebrush rebellion, has flared off and on over control of a wide range of natural resources, frequently pitting various extraction industries against environmental protection.
In Arizona, the U.S. government controls 42 percent of the state’s total land mass, compared with some 60 percent in Utah.
The Arizona bill would have sought state title to most of the federally owned land within its borders, including national forests, national monuments and national wildlife refuges, in addition to Bureau of Land Management land. Military bases and national parks were exempt.
Backers of the measure 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 called Brewer’s veto illogical.
“It amazes me that she would mention employment when the radical ... policies of the federal agencies have stifled and almost killed the lumber industry, the mining industry and cattle grazing on federal lands,” said Al Melvin, a Republican state senator who sponsored the bill.
Opponents of the measure, including the Sierra Club, had argued that the state has proved to be a poor steward of the public lands already in its possession. They welcomed the veto.
“The idea that the state could manage our public lands was ludicrous when we are not even funding or properly maintaining our state park system,” Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, told Reuters.
“Plus it ignores the fact that these lands belong to all Americans, including future generations ... Few would agree with the Arizona Legislature’s proposal to acquire them and then sell them off,” she added.
Editing by Steve Gorman, Lisa Shumaker and Mohammad Zargham