When people invoke the Beltway, it usually means something bad. Especially to Arizonans 2,000 miles away, the Beltway represents a far-off, out-of-touch elite, intent on telling us how to live our lives while they desperately grope for more power.
Nothing reflects this fact as powerfully as Washington, D.C.’s control of our most fundamental resource: the ground beneath our feet.
While our imperial capital controls just 3 percent of its neighbor Maryland, the Beltway controls nearly 39 percent of Arizona’s far larger area.
Compared to other western states, Arizona gets off easy. The feds own 61 percent of Alaska, 63 percent of Utah, and a staggering 80 percent of Nevada. In fact, the federal government controls more than 50 percent of all land west of Kansas.
To many in Washington this isn’t a crisis; it’s just a start.
Under the Antiquities Act, the White House holds unilateral power to designate millions of square miles off limits to its citizens.
President Barack Obama was the worst offender in this regard, creating 22 new national monuments with the stroke of his pen, more than any other chief executive. In the post-war period, Democratic presidents have proclaimed 60 monuments compared to just four by Republican presidents.
Arizona Reps. Trent Franks, Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar joined several other congressmen in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, asking him to roll back a handful of these power grabs. The letter was in response to an executive order asking Zinke to review 27 monuments, especially those created in the past two decades under the often-abused Antiquities Act.
Signed in 1906 with the best of intentions, the act was intended to protect prehistoric Indian ruins and artifacts on federal lands, but limits proclamations to “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects.” Ignoring this clear language, President Obama's monuments regularly exceeded 1 million acres.
Although Beltway politicians claim these designations “protect” lands for the public, the effect is to forbid citizens from safely and respectfully enjoying them. If these monuments are truly intended for the people, they wouldn’t need so many “keep out” signs.
These arbitrary declarations have restricted Americans’ opportunities to fish, hunt, camp and enjoy other forms of low-impact recreation. Grazing rights, water rights, resource development and wildfire prevention are also severely impacted.
These congressmen aren’t demanding that the feds open every national monument to rapacious industrialists or trigger-happy sportsmen. They simply asked the current administration to reverse the cronyism and political payoffs of the last administration and allow more state and local voices to be heard.
As he looks to rebalance the ledger of federal vs. state lands, Secretary Zinke should consider a more fundamental reform: transferring a portion of these millions of acres to the states. Obviously, national parks, military bases and congressionally designated wilderness areas will remain in federal hands, but other public lands will be better managed by local leaders than by Washington bureaucrats.
Back in the 19th century, the federal government controlled as much as 90 percent of the land in Midwestern and southern states. These states appealed to Congress, which eventually handed over the vast majority.
Western states deserve the same authority that the rest of the country enjoys. We can govern our own lands and managing the use and growth more effectively than Beltway functionaries.
And if state leaders fall down on their jobs, it’s far easier for Arizonans to hold them accountable at the ballot box.