Dave Morse: An Open Letter on Public Lands and the Enabling Act of 1912

Arizona celebrated 100 years of statehood last year. Admittance into the Republic of the united States of America is executed by Congress passing and the (Arizona) Territory agreeing to an “Enabling Act”—describing how the Territory will be reborn as a full-fledged State. With few exception, all states since the original thirteen have achieved statehood through enabling acts.

One significant matter remains to be completed in the century following Arizona being admitted as the forty-eight state. The Federal Government still holds title to forty-three (43) percent of the State’s land area.

This matter is not unique to Arizona. If an imaginary line were drawn straight southward along the western borders of North and South Dakota south to Texas (with an eastward jog for Colorado) an interesting and perplexing contrast is seen between Eastern and Western States. In all states east of this line, each state has no more than five (5) percent of its land area controlled by the Federal Government. Ninety-five (95) percent of the lands are under state control. In all states west of this line an average fifty (50) percent of the State’s lands are under Federal control, and in Nevada eighty-six (86) percent in under federal control. Many have asked “Why this stark contrast?” No one has truly been able to provide an answer to this question.

“So what?” the reader might ask.

Two answers.

Answer 1) From a legal and historical perspective, all States are supposed to be admitted to the Union “on equal footing”. As part of the enabling process the Federal government takes title to all lands in the territory, and then is supposed to “dispose” of title to the newly formed state. Thus giving birth to a new state having same the rights, powers and privileges of existing states. The Federal government is not supposed to hold back large portions of the land within the State’s borders which are the State’s birthright.

Answer 2) The timber, minerals, oil, coal, waters and simply the land itself rightfully belong to the individual State to be managed to best advantage to the State. North Dakota, who has less than four (4) percent Federal intrusion, is experiencing an economic boom unimaginable to most other states. Why? North Dakota has large natural resources available to be used because they are on State land. Utah, Colorado and Wyoming have more proven oil reserves than the entire rest of the world. Yet this wealth cannot be touched because it lies beneath “Federal” lands. It is estimated that on and below Federally controlled lands in the Western States there is over $150 trillion (yes TRILLION) dollars in recoverable natural resources.

Tired of being unemployed or finding only low-paying employment? In North Dakota so much money is coming in from oil, gas and coal royalties, the State Legislature is considering doing away with income taxes. And workers up there are raking in the dough. Tired of high gasoline costs? How much would a gallon cost if we bought oil from our own friendly Rocky Mountain States instead of a hostile Middle East? Who needs involvement in foreign Civil Wars when we have a steady flow of oil from our own wells?

The Federal government, in this writers opinion, has held those lands for three reasons:

1) They want to keep title and control over the lands;

2) They do not want to let the various States take control of the lands and resources thereto; and;

3) No one has forced the Federal Government to dispose of lands to the States since Statehood. There is precedent. In 1832 seven States (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana and Florida) after years of unrelenting battle, forced the Federal Government to “dispose” of title back to lands of the States—fulfilling promises made at Statehood. One State, Florida, had approximately ninety (90) percent of the State’s land area under Federal Control. After the 1832 “disposal”, Florida has less than four (4) percent land area under Federal Control.

What is to be done? Ask questions. Start a ‘buzz’ about the issue of State’s Lands, State Sovereignty and making the Federal Government keep its promise and give the proud and Sovereign State of Arizona ALL her lands. Ask elected officials and candidates for elected office to make State Land an issue after elected. Keep the talk going.

We have waited a hundred years. Obviously patience alone will not get the job done.

David Morse is resident of Pima, Arizona.

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