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Lawmaker: In face of fire threat, state, counties deserve sovereignty over forests

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PHOENIX – Facing devastating wildfires and inaction by the federal government, Arizona should declare its sovereignty and take control of its national forests, a state lawmaker contends.

“We have the constitutional right to exercise our police powers in the sovereign state in an emergency situation for the welfare and the public safety of our people,” said Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake.

On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Border Security, Federalism and States Sovereignty, which Allen chairs, endorsed a resolution and a bill that she said would help prevent disasters like last year’s Wallow Fire.

SCR 1008 would announce to federal agencies that Arizona is declaring a state of emergency and “exercising its right of sovereignty over soil within its boundaries.” It cites a lack of congressional oversight and “violations of trust.”

The Wallow Fire, the largest in state history, burned across more than a half million acres of eastern Arizona and New Mexico. Dense growth in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests contributed to the fire’s intensity, and Arizona officials have urged the federal government to thin forests in response.

Allen noted that New Mexico had passed a similar resolution. In 2001, that measure declared the state’s sovereignty over forests after a wildfire devastated the community of Los Alamos.

The text of SB 1081 says it would allow a county board of supervisors to OK clearing undergrowth and logging trees in response to an emergency in a national forest. County officials would have to consult with the state forester before doing so.

Last fall, the Board of Supervisors in Apache County, which took the brunt of the Wallow Fire, adopted a resolution declaring the county’s authority to thin the national forest.

Sandy Bahr, director of Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, called the idea of Arizona or a county managing national forests “ludicrous.”

“A state that can’t manage its park system is going to manage thousands of acres of federal land? I don’t think so,” she said.

A request for comment left with a Forest Service regional spokesman in New Mexico wasn’t returned by early Thursday evening.

Allen said she hopes the measures will spur the federal government to act to prevent more devastating wildfires in Arizona.

“We will see the federal government then moving to … help us get this thinning done so that we can get the health of our forests back and protect our wildlife and our waters,” she said.