This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Backcountry Journal.
By Justin Nelson
Earlier this year, Arizona BHA heavily engaged in a fight against two bills that had the potential to significantly change the way public lands are perceived and managed in the state of Arizona. HB 2547 and HB 2557 were the latest efforts in a drawn out and consistent focus to undermine the status of public lands in Arizona. Both of these bills were a continuation of similar legislative public land takeover efforts pushed during the 2018 legislative session, including HB 2210, which would direct the state attorney general to investigate and report on the feasibility of transferring federally owned lands to the state. The attorney general could then consider taking action to “gain ownership or control of the public lands within this state.”
This transfer of public land ownership could very well result in us being locked out of our favorite places to camp, hike, hunt and fish. HB 2210 was able to make it out of committee but never made it to the floor for an official vote due in large part to a constant stream of emails, phone calls, action alerts and BHA members speaking out against at hearings.
Hot on the heels of HB 2210, house bills 2547 and 2557 were introduced in this year’s legislative session with a very similar intent as last year’s 2210. HB 2547 would have established The Arizona Department of Public Land Management to manage each parcel of public land in Arizona to promote development on public land, and this revenue would be deposited in the newly established Public Land Management Fund – a clear attempt for the state to control federal lands: the specified uses are not defined, it would increase state government with a new and unproven department and it would conflict with a large portion of the duties already under the purview of the Arizona State Lands Department. The legality of this new department is highly questionable.
It would require an agreement with the Department of the Interior and/or an act of Congress to change management of these lands. Why waste taxpayer funds to go down a rabbit hole that an overwhelming majority of public land users do not want to go down?
HB 2557 would have allocated $1 million in taxpayer funds to establish a joint study committee which would have been charged with studying ways by which the state could assert control over revenues on public lands. This effort was a thinly veiled attempt to undermine the status of public lands in the public’s eye by limiting the value of public lands to just a short-term dollar figure.
After a strong and continuous effort by Arizona BHA and others, both HB 2547 and 2557 stalled in their respective committees and never received much attention on the floor of the state legislature, until the bill’s sponsor decided to pull a bait and switch at the last minute and package the bills as one in 2557 and bring to the Senate floor for a vote on the last day of the session. Thankfully our voices had been heard loud and clear in the Senate, and it was voted down. We were able to avoid any of these repercussions for another year.
These issues are not going away, as a select few state representatives unfortunately continue to repackage the same misguided language into new bills each year to try and sneak through the legislature. Arizona BHA will continue to voice our opposition to the idea of federal land transfer and work with our state representatives to ensure we KEEP IT PUBLIC!
Justin Nelson is a lifelong hunter and angler who loves volunteering through BHA and knowing that what we are working on will make a difference that will last for generations to come. He is the chair of the Arizona chapter board.