Fear of losing iconic Western culture spurs fight

Associated Press
FILE - In this Sept. 18, 1996 file photo, Vice President Al Gore applauds after President Clinton signs a bill designating 1.7 million acres of land in southern Utah's red-rock cliffs as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Some Western lawmakers are pushing for a showdown with Washington over federally-controlled land, picking a fight on an issue that they say puts an economic stranglehold on their states. Republican legislators in Utah and Arizona are leading a charge to hand over control of public territory that makes up much of the West, insisting local leaders could manage it better. (AP Photo/Doug Mills, File)
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PHOENIX (AP) — Herding sheep has been part of Carey Dobson's family tradition spanning four generations, even before Arizona was granted statehood by the federal government in 1912, but all that changed earlier this year.

Dobson says he's been regulated right out of business, forced to sell his 5,000 sheep to concentrate on his cattle after years of increasing "frivolous" federal restrictions on public land.

"It's totally consumed my whole life just dealing with these issues and trying to figure out how I'm going to make it another year," he said.

It's a sentiment felt across the West, a feeling that more than just land is at stake, but that a way of life is being threatened and the iconic cowboy culture of the region will eventually go the way of Dobson's sheep.

Legislators in Utah and Arizona say they are finally drawing a line in the sand with bills aimed at forcing the federal government to hand over control of public territory, insisting local leaders could manage it better.

"We're putting them on notice for them to cede it to us. And if they don't, we'll start taxing it," said Arizona state Sen. Al Melvin, who sponsored the legislation in his state.

Utah lawmakers on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill that sets a 2014 deadline for the federal government to relinquish lands that aren't national parks, military installations or wilderness, essentially demanding that about 30 million acres — nearly 50 percent of the entire state — be handed over.

It's expected to soon be signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, setting the stage for a legal showdown experts say is unwinnable. But it's a fight the states want to pick, arguing that increasingly restrictive regulations from Washington are effectively putting a stranglehold on their economies.

Lawmakers say the federal oversight is crippling industries like ranching, timber and mining, and overregulation has led to overgrown forests and massive wildfires.

Skeptics say state officials are likely to do more harm than good, especially to the environment, and stand to ruin what makes the region unique.

"How in the world do they think they could manage these federal public lands?" asked Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "The state doesn't really have anything in place for land protection, and the attitude of the Legislature is one of abuse rather than protection."

Legal experts say the land grabs are unconstitutional, but lawmakers are digging in with an eye toward the potential for millions of dollars in revenue from taxes, development rights or even the sale of lands.

State lawmakers say that, with local control, they could deliver jobs, money for education and even help balance the federal budget.

To those who live on the land, it means much more.

"It's a way of life that is being threatened," said Kane County Clerk Carla Johnson, whose husband's family has been ranching for decades in the rugged high-desert wilderness around the southern Utah town of Kanab. "The West is known for the ranching cowboy heritage, and we're losing it."

Tony Wright was born and raised in this community of about 6,000 people. The 65-year-old business owner and head of the UT/AZ ATV Club says he fears more of the restrictions that followed President Bill Clinton's 1996 declaration of the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument at Kanab's backdoor.

Wright said the move meant his family and others can no longer access sites they've visited for generations.

"We lost a beautiful canyon that they're saying you can only hike to now, and it's a hike of some 30 miles that nobody can do," he said. "The problem that we have right now is that people in the East have no idea what the West is like. They're trying to control our destiny."

Republican state Rep. Ken Ivory is leading the effort in Utah and helped draft model legislation for other states.

"If sovereignty means anything, it means not having to say pretty please or mother may I," Ivory said.

Arizona's bill is similar and would put the federal government on roughly the same timeline as Utah to hand over land.

About 40 percent of Arizona land is under federal control and about 30 percent is tribal — leaving about 30 percent as state or private land.

The legislation in both states is mainly aimed at land controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 245 million acres across 12 western states.

Arizona's proposal includes a provision that, if the state does take possession, most of the proceeds from sales would be used to pay off the national debt.

But legal experts say the challenges won't get far.

"That's not really open to dispute," said Joseph Feller, a professor who teaches natural resources law at Arizona State University. "The states have absolutely no power to take over the federal public land."

This was made clear during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and 1980s, when Western states pushed for greater control of federally-owned public lands. Arizona passed legislation at the time that's very similar to this year's proposal.

"Legally, it's a ridiculous claim. It would be thrown out in federal court in five seconds," said John Leshy, a professor at University of California Hastings College of Law. "This is all just about cranky, symbolic politics."

Symbolic or not, local officials argue the state would at least be a better partner than the federal government.

Kane County Commissioner Dirk Clayson said the decisions about federal land access seem to be dictated more by Washington politics than logic.

"We really have a federal land management policy that ignores the needs of state, county or local residents," Clayson said. "There's risks, but the general feeling is we have a much more effective working relationship with the state. After all, they're only a four-hour automobile drive away from us."

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Loftin reported from Salt Lake City. AP writer Brian Skoloff also contributed to this report.

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