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Arizona legislators mull creation of department to manage public lands

February 5, 2019

If Arizona can wrest control over the management of its public lands from federal agencies, it could mean a windfall for the state’s economy.

That’s the goal of a new bill before the Legislature this month, which seeks to create a new Department of Public Land Management. The bill, HB 2547, would create the department and establish a director under supervision of the governor for the purpose of taking management responsibility over federally controlled lands throughout Arizona. Those duties include managing grazing areas for livestock, developing fish and wildlife, exploring mineral exploration, establishing rights of way and managing outdoor recreation were until now undertaken by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Those lands include 2.4 million acres of BLM-controlled lands in Northwestern Arizona alone, and according to state Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Lake Havasu City, taking responsibility and ownership of those public lands could be a step in strengthening the state’s economic security.

“For Mohave County, this could be huge,” Cobb said. “In the past when we’ve tried to manage our public lands, the federal government would tell us we couldn’t without a management department. Once we have a state management plan in place, we’ll have control over our state lands, which we’re not being paid for at the moment. We can control that land ourselves without the federal government controlling them for us.”

According to Cobb, Arizona is one of only a few western states that haven’t yet developed such a plan for their public lands.

“We’ve never had something like this before,” Cobb said. “When we get those lands back, we’ll have more opportunity to fund education and a lot of other things. A lot of eastern states have a lot more money than we do because they have control over their own public lands.”

State Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, has also cosponsored the bill, and says such an effort is long overdue.

“The management of public lands ought to be a local management affair,” Biasiucci said. “They’re in Arizona, not in Washington D.C. Under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the federal government is required to cooperate and coordinate efforts to manage public lands. We should have been doing this long ago.”

The Department of Public Land Management would be tasked with coordinating through contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to determine where the bureau and Arizona authorities might agree state management would be in the best interest of the land, the people close to it, and what uses would be permitted for such land, according to Biasiucci.

“Local management of public affairs is always more responsive and available than the federal government,” Biasiucci said. “That’s why the Legislature stays open and works when the federal government takes a break from time to time.”

Overseeing the department will be a joint legislative committee of three state senators and five representatives. Both Biasiucci and Cobb expressed interest in assuming roles on such a committee.

“I would love to serve on the committee,” Cobb said. “We would need more rural, as well as urban representatives to watch over our lands.”

From existing grazing permits to watercraft access agreements, the committee would provide oversight over the management of existing agreements between the state and federal government. It’s a role Biasiucci hopes to attain if the Legislature votes in favor of creating the new department.

“Land stewardship is not a partisan matter,” Biasiucci said. “We all love the land and want to see that it is well cared for. I hope to be appointed to the committee so that our area has a local voice in the oversight of this important office.”

The bill was initially introduced by Mark Finchem, R-Tucson, and has been cosponsored by 30 other Arizona legislators.

Attempts to contact U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials, or U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar by telephone were unsuccessful as of Friday evening.

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