PHOENIX - Arizona really can force the federal government to surrender title to close 73 million acres of land in the state, the chief proponent of the ballot proposition insists.
But others who support Proposition 120 concede that even with voter approval it may be a legally ineffective measure, as the likelihood of Congress agreeing is virtually nil.
Still, they say there is a good reason for Arizona voters to declare sovereignty over all that federal land, and it could make a difference, even without congressional action, by forcing federal agencies to be more responsive to requests to make use of those public lands.
However, the measure ran into a wall of opposition largely from the environmental community fearful of the management practices of state agencies reporting to state elected officials.
On paper the idea behind Proposition 120 is simple. It would add a section to the Arizona Constitution declaring the "sovereign and exclusive authority over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within its border."
Central to the idea is frustration with federal management of its lands within the state.
Rep. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, sponsor of the legislation that put the issue on the ballot, said a prime example has been the forests.
"We had a thriving forest industry back in the '70s and '80s," he said, with timber companies harvesting logs on federal lands. "That's when all the (environmental) lawsuits started."
That, in turn, led to a reticence of federal agencies to allow logging projects, or even forest thinning. The result, Crandell said, has been huge wildfires that devastated large portions of the state.
"And what have we accomplished?" he continued. "We've burned up the habitat of the spotted owl and the goshawk as well."
Jim Klinker, chief administrative officer of the Arizona Farm Bureau, sees it in more basic terms.
"Those forests should have been thinned. We should have had timbering out there. We should encourage grazing on those lands, put ranchers out there to manage it, put foresters out there to manage these lands working with these federal agencies," he said. "But that has broken down."
And that gets to the essence of Klinker's complaint.
He said groups that seek to do something on federal lands, like grazing, used to be able to work with federal employees on the ground in Arizona. They could get quick answers, which is no longer the case.
"There's little response, if you will, from the federal agencies," he said.
"It seems to get worse and worse," Klinker said. "The bureaucracy that dictates from Washington, D.C., to the Forest Service and BLM land is just getting so bureaucratic you can't get anything done on the ground."
Beyond concerns about how state agencies would manage the lands, Steve Arnquist of the Arizona League of Conservation Voters said, there are more practical arguments against the measure.
One is that it makes no sense to let each of the 50 states have its own set of environmental rules and regulations, and not have a baseline safe level of clean air and clean water, he said.
"Let's say one state has a more aggressive Clean Air Act standard than the state next to it," he said. "But the air doesn't know when to stay in the state."
And he rejected arguments that there may be legitimate reasons to let states set some of their own environmental regulations, such as for dust control, which is different in the desert than it might be back East.
"I would respond to that that human lungs are the same in all the states," Arnquist said.
"We know what the maximum levels of certain pollutants are before it starts making people sick," he said. "And that's the same whether you're in Pennsylvania or you're in Arizona."
Perhaps the bigger question is whether Arizona could actually manage all those federal lands when, Arnquist noted, the state has struggled just to keep its parks open.
Gov. Jan Brewer agrees.
Brewer said while she shares the frustration over how the state's natural resources are being managed, this is not the answer. Brewer vetoed an early legislative attempt to take control of federal lands.
She said if the federal government were to somehow accede to the demand, the state is totally unprepared to take over almost 73 million acres of federal land.
Crandell said Arizona could manage all those lands, collecting the fees and using them to help balance the state budget and keep taxes low.
Klinker, however, has his doubts.
"I don't think these lands could be turned over overnight to the states," he said. "But there could be a system in place that moved more decision making back here to the local level."
And that, from Klinker's perspective, could be the best possible outcome, especially with the belief that the vote would be largely symbolic.
schedule for proposition stories
All this week the Star is publishing a series explaining the nine state and one city propositions appearing on this year's general election ballot. The schedule for those stories is:
• Monday: Propositions 119 and 118.
• Today: Proposition 120.
• Wednesday, Sept. 26: Proposition 116 - Reducing the property tax rate for businesses; and Proposition 117 - Eliminating the practice of all property having two different assessed values for taxes.
• Thursday, Sept. 27: Proposition 114 - Limiting the right to sue for damages if someone is injured while committing a crime,
• Friday, Sept. 28: Proposition 115 - Giving the governor more power in the selection of judges.
• Saturday, Sept. 29: Proposition 121 - Creating a single primary election for all candidates.
• Sunday, Sept. 30: Proposition 204 - Making the existing 1-cent sales tax surcharge permanent; and Proposition 409 - $100 million city bond issue.