By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona lawmakers on Monday passed legislation demanding the U.S. government relinquish to the state millions of acres of federal territory, in the latest rekindling of a "sagebrush rebellion" over control of public lands in the West.
Without debate, the Republican-dominated Arizona House of Representatives easily passed a measure seeking the return of roughly 48,000 square miles of government-owned acreage in the Grand Canyon state by 2015.
The bill, approved on a 35-15 vote, now goes to the state Senate for final passage. Republican Governor Jan Brewer would then have five days once the bill reaches her desk to sign or veto it. Otherwise, the measure becomes law automatically.
Arizona would be the second state in the nation to enact such legislation. Last month, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill seeking to reclaim some 30 million acres of federally owned land in his state, shrugging off warnings from state attorneys that the measure was likely unconstitutional and would lead to a protracted yet futile legal battle.
Other Western legislatures are said to be weighing similar measures in what is shaping up as a new front in the decades-old conflict between the federal government and big public-land states over control of their resources.
The moves cap years of rising indignation among political conservatives in big Western states over that fact that vast tracts of their land mass are owned by various federal agencies, much of it by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management. In Arizona, the U.S. government controls 42 percent of the land mass, compared with some 60 percent in Utah.
Proponents of the Arizona bill have complained that federal control puts too much land off-limits to commercial development such as mining, logging and livestock raising -- limiting the state's potential tax base for schools and other public services.
They see the government as too closely aligned with environmental groups, which largely oppose efforts by the so-called sagebrush rebels to loosen federal controls. Conservationists say less federal management would lead to degradation of the land and its wildlife while allowing a virtual giveaway of publicly owned natural resources.
"All of these federal agencies have been infiltrated by extreme environmentalists and have almost killed off what Arizona was built on - lumber, mining and ranching," said Republican state Senator Al Melvin, the bill's chief sponsor. "It's wrong and it's happening all over the West. We are bound and determined to put it to an end to this."
Under the bill, the state would seek title to most of the state's federal acreage, including national monuments, national forests and national wildlife refuges. Military bases and national parks would be exempt, as would Indian reservations.
The bill also would allow Arizona to sell off the land it receives, retaining 5 percent of the net proceeds, with the rest going to the federal government.
Critics blasted the measure, saying that its sponsors are out of touch with most of Arizona's voters.
"These lands belong to all of us, as Americans, and to future generations of Americans," said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter. "Senator Melvin's bill is a short-sighted selfish bill that would promote selling off our national heritage."
Bahr said the state already has done a "deplorable job" in managing its state parks and expects that it will do no better with federal public lands.
Melvin said at least four other states are reviewing similar efforts, including Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico and Wyoming.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Eric Walsh)