Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Western legislatures grab for control of public lands

In late April, Arizona's Legislature approved a bill demanding that Washington, D.C., give the state control over most of its federal land. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a similar measure in March. These bills are, of course, highly unlikely to result in any actual transfer of land; most legal experts think they'll prove unconstitutional, and decades of Supreme Court decisions firmly support federal oversight of certain lands. The rhetoric behind the measures is all about states' rights, but they would also boost corporate access to Western natural resources. "This push is driven by the fossil fuel industry," says Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Conservation Voters, "and it's been fascinating to see ALEC and its agenda and funders more exposed." ALEC –– the American Legislative Exchange Council –– is funded by major corporations, such as Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and Shell Oil Co. Nationwide, about 2,000 state legislators are members of the conservative policy group, which furnishes them with model bills, including the template for the current measures. ALEC also supplied language for an unsuccessful 1995 federal Sagebrush Rebellion Act that sought to transfer 422,200 square miles to the states. The first land-transfer efforts began much earlier, in 1929-'30, spurred by anger over grazing fee hikes. Later Sagebrush Rebellion skirmishes, in 1979-'80 and in 1995-'97, forced federal agencies to collaborate more with locals on land management. Now, the Arizona Legislature demands that the feds relinquish some 48,000 square miles, roughly the area of Pennsylvania, by 2014, while Utah asserts ownership of about 47,000 square miles. (At press time, Gov. Jan Brewer had yet to sign or veto the Arizona bill.) In Colorado, a bill seeking control of 36,000 square miles recently failed. The bills exclude national parks, Indian reservations and military bases. A handful of other states are said to be contemplating similar measures for next year. "What we envision," says state Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, the primary sponsor of Arizona's bill, "is all of the Western states going before the Supreme Court to force this issue."...more

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