On Tuesday, America almost lost the Grand Canyon.
It wasn’t an act of terror or another natural disaster. It was an act of democracy. Citizens of Arizona took to the polls to decide whether the American icon, one of the seven wonders of the natural world, would belong to all Americans, or whether the “Grand Canyon State” would become just that.
Proposition 120, the Arizona Declaration of State Sovereignty Amendment, declared “sovereign and exclusive authority and jurisdiction over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within [the state’s] boundaries.”
The controversial ballot measure, backed by the Republicans in the state legislature, made exemptions for Native American reservations and federal installations like forts, but would have essentially transferred control of parks like the Grand Canyon from the federal government to the state if it had passed, which it didn’t.
In fact, voters handily rejected the proposition by a margin of 2-to-1, but it opened up a dialogue that proponents say is the first step toward change. They may have lost the battle, they say, but the war is just beginning.
The Battle For Arizona
Teddy Roosevelt, the great champion of American conservation, declared the 277-mile (446km) Grand Canyon a national treasure in January 1908.
“Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur,” he proclaimed.
Many conservationists feared that if the park lost its federal protection, it could also lose some of that grandeur.
The Arizona Wilderness Coalition figured that Proposition 120 would affect about 25 million acres of public lands, including 20 national park units, 90 wilderness areas, and dozens of wildlife refuges and units of the National Conservation Lands system. The organization further claimed the measure “would be a budgetary boondoggle for Arizona” as the state sold off lands meant for public benefit.
Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said Tuesday’s vote sent a strong message to the Arizona Legislature that citizens of the state support public lands and important laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, which the Sierra Club believed were threatened by the proposition.
“It is clear that the legislature is out of touch with the people of Arizona when it comes to protecting our environment,” she said. “Grand Canyon, Saguaro and Petrified Forest national parks are all part of our national heritage and belong to all Americans, including future generations of Americans. They should not be left to the politics of an out-of-touch and short-sighted Arizona Legislature.”
The Sierra Club argued that Arizona has already closed a number of state parks and questioned how it would have the funds to properly manage parks as large as the Grand Canyon. Moreover, Bahr said the idea was simply a recycled argument that was popular back in the 1970s during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion.
“Some politicians think there is too much federal public land and that it is a disadvantage. Most people, however, see just the opposite,” she said. “Even some of the more conservative lobbyists at the Capitol said to me that they thought this was just a crazy idea and that a big part of why they like Arizona is that it has these wonderful public lands.”
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, known for her extreme stances on abortion and immigration, surprised many when she vetoed legislation pushing for state sovereignty over land in May, saying it created too much uncertainty for existing leaseholders during tough economic times. Thus, it went to the ballot.
Republican state Rep. Chester Crandell sponsored Proposition 120 and said he thought he had “some good things going,” but believed the initiative didn’t have enough money behind it and was dogged by “over-imaginative” rhetoric from conservationists who feared the loss of the Grand Canyon.
To his estimation, the federal government has loved the land to death, paving the way for blazes like last year’s Wallow Fire that cost the state millions. If the state was able to control the land, he supposed, catastrophes like these could be prevented through managed logging and grazing.
“I’m just a plain old country boy,” he said in his Southwestern twang, “but when you watch catastrophic wildfires and you get displaced out of your home, you’ve got to fight for what you believe.”
The theory Crandell and his counterparts at the American Lands Council tout is that the West was “lost” to the federal government and that there is a need for the states to “take it back.”
Though many Westerners disagree on the specifics of how to do that, they’re often unified on one point: The region’s destiny is dictated by outsiders in the East, and those outsiders don’t have a clue about what the West needs.
Sagebrush Rebellion Gets A New Face
What’s happening on the western side of the so-called “Federal Fault Line” may be a revival of the Sagebrush Rebellion, but don’t call it that.
“It’s the same subject matter, but we’ve got very different situations. We are in an economic situation that the world has never seen before,” said Ken Ivory, founder of the American Lands Council and primary sponsor of a bill similar to Arizona’s that passed the Utah state Senate earlier this year.
Ivory’s bill in Utah, unlike Crandell’s proposal in Arizona, excluded National Park land. Still, even the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel conceded that, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions throughout history, the bill has a “high probability of being declared unconstitutional.”
Ivory, however, believes the contrary. When states were added to the union, they petitioned the federal government to free up land, he said, but states west of Colorado didn’t get what they were promised.
Eduardo Pagán, professor of history at Arizona State University and one of the hosts of the PBS series “History Detectives,” says this is true to a point, but noted that the government at the time couldn’t give the land away if it tried.
“Had the land been flatter, more arable or more recognizable for having resources it may have been bought,” he said. “They didn’t stop giving the land away; they couldn’t. What do you do when you have a sale and nobody wants to buy what you’ve got?”
Federal land, he said, was never meant to exist in the first place. It was always considered an asset to be distributed for the growth of the economy, but by the end of the 19th century, the federal government ended up with tracts of land that nobody wanted. This coincided with the rise of conservationists and the ascent of Teddy Roosevelt to the White House in 1901
So what do you do with land as beautiful as what is now known as Yellowstone? You create a park.
“As a nation, we’ve always been of two minds as to what to do with federal land: utilize or preserve it,” Pagán said.
The idea that national land is part of our heritage and an asset really took hold in the 20th century up until conservatives said enough was enough with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which authorized the Bureau of Land Management to designate places many in the West used for herding, mining or even archeological studies as national wilderness areas.
The Sagebrush Rebellion was born.
Former President Ronald Reagan, whose name came up more than once during the current election cycle, even declared himself a sagebrush rebel at a rally in Salt Lake City in 1980. He went on to propose privatization schemes during his presidency and encouraged a rebellion that pitted loggers, miners, ranchers and others against Washington bureaucrats.
The paradox, of course, was that while the intermountain West prided itself as a land of rugged individualism, it was also the region of the country that was most dependent on the federal government.
How The West Will Be Won
While the Sagebrush Rebellion and Reagan’s subsequent privatization movement generated wide debate, neither one had substantive consequences, and both ideas seemed defunct until the likes of Ivory came along and stirred up support in the Beehive State this year.
Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed Utah House Bill 148 -- which asked the federal government to give back 20 million acres -- into law in March of this year. Ivory claims other bills patterned after his are in the works for Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico.
Ivory’s American Lands Council, going strong after just one year in existence, targets counties first because they’re more nimble and can be more decisive.
“They have a moral responsibility to protect their citizens and decided it was time to go on the offense,” he said, noting that when you free up valuable land, you grow the GDP and have money to fund things like education.
“You have a resource in your state and a promise, what do you do,” he questioned. “Do you sacrifice public safety and your children’s education because the federal government says so?”
Crandell, for one, said the makeup of the new legislature will dictate his next moves on state land rights for Arizona.
“We’re trying to build a Western state coalition,” he enthused, noting the work of the American Lands Council. “State legislatures petitioned governments to let loose lands across America and it happened all the way until Colorado.” Now, some in the “other half” of America want what they believe they’re due.
All the while, one can’t help but think Woody Guthrie is rolling around in his grave. If this land is truly your land and my land from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, wasn’t it made for you and me?