PHOENIX – When Rep. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, looks back at wildfires that have devastated Arizona’s forests in recent years, he sees a legacy of mismanagement by the federal government.
“We have not been able to get in and log properly and to clean our forests up,” he said. “And that’s led to catastrophic wildfires.”
That’s just one example, according to Crandell, of the federal government keeping Arizona from properly managing and benefiting from natural resources within its boundaries.
In response, he and other supporters of Proposition 120 say, Arizona should declare its sovereignty.
“This just simply sets the groundwork and sets the message to the federal government that we are a sovereign state,” Crandell said. “And we will take care of things within our state boundaries.”
Proposition 120 would amend the Arizona Constitution to say that the state “declares its sovereign and exclusive authority and jurisdiction over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within its boundaries.”
The proposition wouldn’t cover Native American reservations, national parks and military installations.
Crandell said sovereignty would put Arizona in charge of its forests, including managing logging and thinning, to prevent catastrophes such as the 2011 Wallow Fire, the largest wildfire in Arizona history. Managing logging also would increase state revenues, he said.
“It would be managed to the point that we would utilize it and it would be sustained, but we would generate income off it,” Crandell said.
State Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, a co-sponsor of the legislation referred to the ballot, said Arizona could fight wildfires on its own as well as the federal government does.
“And there’d be many firefighters from around the country who’d be willing to come help,” she said.
But since federal authority trumps that of the states, would this be anything more than a political statement to Washington?
“It’s very clearly unconstitutional,” said Paul Bender, who teaches state and federal constitutional law at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
“Most people have more sense than to think that you can be part of the United States and not part of the United States depending on whether you like what the federal government’s doing or not,” he said.
Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, scoffed at the idea that a state unable to fund its own parks could take over managing federal land.
“The Legislature has a dismal record when it comes to public lands issues,” she said. “Frankly, they cannot be trusted with these federal public lands.”
Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, called the notion that local fire departments could effectively fight large wildfires “outlandish.”
“The truth is, even all of the state’s fire departments could not mobilize, secure air tankers and deliver a thousand firefighters in three days as the federal government has done with the Wallow Fire,” he said. “I mean, how in the world could we respond to that, and then secondly, how in the world could we afford it?”
Crandell acknowledged that the state doesn’t currently have the money to manage forests and other natural resources on federal land. But he said private businesses could help.
“As you open these up and we are able to have logging contracts, we’re able to have other projects to go in and harvest and use the product for a beneficial purpose, then I think you generate the money, that it takes care of itself,” he said.
Proposition 120 would repeal language in the Arizona Constitution giving up claim to any unallocated public land. That provision was required under the Arizona-New Mexico Enabling Act, which cleared the way for statehood and granted Arizona nearly 11 million acres of land in trust, primarily to benefit public education.
Crandell said that act is an example of western states being denied the same control over public land as other states.
“We’re at a huge disadvantage economically with the rest of the states east of the Colorado border,” he said.
While Arizona most likely would face a lawsuit from the federal government if it attempted to assert sovereignty, Crandell said Arizona’s rights are worth the fight.
“Does that mean, then, that we don’t push back, that we don’t look at why we’re not equal with other states that had their land given to them?” he said.