Is Arizona trying to steal the Grand Canyon?

A measure on the 2012 ballot claims sovereignty over all land, air, and water in the state

Topics: Environment, Arizona, National Park Service, Election 2012,

Is Arizona trying to steal the Grand Canyon? (Credit: somchaij via Shutterstock)

When Teddy Roosevelt dedicated the Grand Canyon as a national protected monument in January of 1908, he declared, “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur.” But if Arizona voters approve Proposition 120 on Election Day, they’d create a precedent that may one day be used to take the natural wonder away from the federal government and enstrust it with the people who sold off their own state house for quick buck: Arizona’s state legislature.

Proposition 120, the Arizona Declaration of State Sovereignty Amendment, “declares [Arizona's] sovereign and exclusive authority and jurisdiction over the air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within its boundaries.” The language makes specific exemptions for Indian reservations, along with “lands of the United States…pursuant to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17” of the U.S. Constitution. That clause gives the federal government power over lands “purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings.”

So military installations are clearly still Washington’s, but other federal lands, including national parks, are a bit of a grey area. The measure, which was placed on the ballot by the Republican-controlled state legislature, is an outgrowth of the radical view of states’ rights that came en vouge with the Tea Party. Prop 120 touches on neo-nullificationism, a doctrine holding (erroneously) that states can exempt themselves from federal laws they don’t like, along with Tentherism, the judicial philosophy that much of the federal government’s activities undertaken over the past 100 years have been unconstitutional.

As E.J. Perkins, a policy analyst at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, wrote in of the ballot measure: “Some advocates [of Prop 120] question the legality of lands designated as national parks. They point out that the federal government never purchased this property from the state nor sought consent of the Legislature as required under Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution.”

Lawmakers who support the bill generally focus on a much narrower and more obscure issue: They say Arizona currently isn’t allowed to exercise as much control over its lands as other states and claim the ballot measure is a message to Washington to back off. But environmental advocates are worried. The Arizona Wilderness Coalition argues that the ballot measure could lay the legal groundwork for Arizona to demand that all the land in Arizona — including national parks like the Grand Canyon — be turned over to state or private ownership. “The intent is to gain control of national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife refuges in Arizona and undermine protections provided by federal law,” the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter warns.

Even one of the supporters of Prop 120 listed on the Secretary of State’s official voting guide hints at this: “Congress has NO authority to establish a National Forest Service or National Park Service and all land inside Arizona belongs to the citizens of Arizona.”

And even if the measure turns out to be not an unconstitutional land grab for national parks but merely an unconstitutional land grab for other federal lands and resources, it could still spell real trouble. Proponents of the measure said they were inspired by the federal government’s mishandling of a recent major wildfire on federal lands, but have so far failed to explain why they think the state would be better able to deal with wildfires. “The truth is, even all of the state’s fire departments could not mobilize [enough resources]… I mean, how in the world could we respond to that, and then secondly, how in the world could we afford it?” Democratic state Rep. Tom Chabin told the Capitol Times.

Moreover, because Prop 120 would give Arizona exclusive legal authority over all the air and water in the state, it could jeopardize federal environmental laws like the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and Clean Water Act. And that may be precisely the intent! Republican State Rep. Sylvia Allen, who believes the earth she wants to protect is 6,000 years old, suggested as much in a statement included in the state’s official voting guide: “The EPA threatens to close coal-generating power plants with excessive regulations. Closing these plants will result in higher utility costs for everyone.”

There’s no polling on the proposition’s chances of succeeding at the ballot, but passage seems at least plausible in the often kookily conservative state. Even if does pass, however, the measure is almost certain to end up in federal court, where it will likely be struck down as a violation of the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which says states cannot disregard the will of the federal government. The Grand Canyon should be safe for now.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>