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Who Should Own the Grand Canyon

Tobias Alt

Arizona’s Proposition 120 is the latest skirmish in a decades-old, federal-state tug-of-war.

The State Sovereignty Act, as it’s called, would amend the Arizona Constitution to grant the state control over millions of acres of public land -- including the Grand Canyon.

Last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stood on the south rim of the Grand Canyon on a sunny morning. He took in its vast magnificence before announcing a ban on new uranium mining claims outside park boundaries.

"Like our ancestors, we do not know how future Americans will enjoy, experience and benefit from this place," Salazar said. "And that’s one of the many reasons why wisdom, caution and science should guide our protection of the Grand Canyon."

Protection of the canyon with federal laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. But it’s exactly those protections that Arizona Representative Chester Crandell is fighting. Crandell is what you might call a “Sagebrush Rebel.” The term was coined in the 1970s during battles between ranchers and the feds about what should or shouldn’t be protected wilderness.

"There was a tremendous amount of resources -- timber, mining, those kinds of things they didn’t have where they were doing farming," Crandell said. "And so the federal government looks at it and says, ‘hmm maybe we better hold on to these.’"

Crandell sponsored the legislation that led to this ballot measure. He’s fed up with the federal government’s one-size-fits-all approach to managing these lands and natural resources. He’d like to see fewer restrictions on logging, grazing and mining.

Crandell claims that environmentalists’ lawsuits, which have restrained logging and thinning projects on federal lands, wouldn’t be successful if the state controlled the forests.

He shared these views in a debate with state Representative Tom Chabin on The Mitch and Joe Show, a Flagstaff radio show.

"We’re swinging at pitches we cannot hit," Chabin said. "It’s way out of the strike zone. No one can hit this. No state can take over a national park. No state can take over a national forest. You can’t do it. It is blatantly unconstitutional. This will end up in litigation that the state is going to lose."

Constitutional experts agreed with Chabin.

"It’s illegal," said Paul Bender, who teaches constitutional law at Arizona State University. "It’s unconstitutional. It’s just wrong. The United States Constitution has in it a very explicit provision called the supremacy clause which says that all valid federal legislation prevails over state laws and over state constitutions."

In addition to violating constitutional law, it would -- if it were enforceable -- violate environmental policies.

"We need to remember that the federal protections on these lands came to be because people were not managing them sufficiently," said Alicyn Gitlin, a spokeswoman for the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Gitlin gave the example of the polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio that caught fire and sparked the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the enactment of the Clean Water Act.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature approved an almost identical measure, only to have it vetoed. Even Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who calls herself a staunch advocate for state sovereignty, said the state is totally unprepared to take over 73 million acres of federal land.

But similar legislation was signed into law by Utah Governor Gary Herbert in March. Utah’s law demands some 30 million acres of federal land be handed over to the state by 2014. Herbert says on his blog this is not just a Utah problem, it’s a western problem. And these measures may send a message to the federal government. Or as Utah state attorneys warn, kick off a costly and futile legal battle.

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