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Saving the Sagebrush Sea: An Imperiled Western Legacy

Nearly 350 plant and animal species depend on sagebrush habitat for their survival.


Valuing Our Western Public Lands Report

Western Public Lands



A significant portion of the land area of Arizona – over 40% – is public land. These public lands include national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, monuments, wilderness areas and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Arizona’s public lands feature a diverse range of landscapes, including stark desert highlands, remote mountains, red canyons and rolling rivers, lush wetlands, cool forests, and large lakes.

Public lands in Arizona support a wide variety of activities, from recreational pursuits such as camping, hunting, fishing, and hiking to natural resource development. They also provide clean air, clean water and picturesque scenery, resources enjoyed by all Arizonans and by visitors who flock to Arizona from around the world. Arizona’s public lands also provide habitat for hundreds of wildlife species, such as the rare jaguar and Mexican wolf and popular game species like mule deer and big horn sheep. These lands also contain remnants of 1500 years of human history: historic trails, prehistoric ruins and rock art.

Assessing the Economic Value of Public Lands

Public lands have a substantial impact on the Arizona economy. These lands support a booming tourism and outdoor industry. People travel to Arizona from around the world to see and explore its natural marvels, such as the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest National Park, and to camp, hunt and fish on thousands of acres of pristine wildlife habitat. In addition, the natural amenities offered by Arizona’s public lands attract new businesses and a skilled workforce, which boost economic growth in communities located near public lands.

Arizona’s Public Lands Support a Booming Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Industry

Outdoor recreation and tourism are a vital part of the Arizona economy. The Arizona Office of Tourism reports that the state hosted 36.9 million domestic and international overnight visitors in 2010, equal to roughly 101,000 visitors per day. Travel spending in Arizona generates a direct impact of 152,200 jobs with earnings of $4.7 billion in 2010, as well as $1.4 billion in local and state tax revenues and $1.1 billion in federal tax revenues. The Outdoor Industry Association has found that active outdoor recreation supports 82,000 jobs across Arizona, generates $350 million in annual state tax revenue and produces $5 billion annually in retail sales and services across Arizona.

Arizona’s Public Lands Provide Opportunities to Hunt, Fish and Watch Wildlife

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that each year more than 2.1 million people participate in hunting, fishing and wildlife watching in Arizona - 637,000 fish, 269,000 hunt and 1.6 million participate in wildlife-watching activities. The Arizona economy benefits from $2.4 billion in annual spending on wildlife-related recreation.

Arizona’s Public Lands Influence the Economic Structure of Nearby Communities

Like other western states with a large percentage of public lands, Arizona is outpacing the nation in economic growth.  The competitive advantage offered by its public lands attracts talent, investment, and businesses to Arizona, contributing to its high rate of employment and income growth. More than 4 in 10 Arizona entrepreneurs choose to do business in the state because of opportunities tied to public lands.

Arizona vs. Non-Western U.S., Percent Change, 2000-2011. Source: Headwaters Economics. West Is Best: Protected Lands Promote Arizona Jobs and Higher Incomes. November 2012. http://headwaterseconomics.org/land/west-is-best-value-of-public-lands-az/


Arizonans Value Public Lands

Public opinion polls prove that people and businesses come to Arizona and choose to stay because of the quality of life tied to public lands. Arizona residents enjoy spending time outside on public lands. A 2013 bipartisan poll conducted by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project showed that a majority of Arizona voters (56%) hike regularly, and 44% are regular campers. One third (33%) of Arizona voters are hunters or anglers. Sixty-five percent (65%) of voters in the state plan to visit a national park this year. These Arizonans recognize the economic and intrinsic value of public lands and want to see these lands protected for future generations.

Arizona Voters Recognize That Public Lands Support the Economy

The State of the Rockies poll shows that Arizona voters have a great appreciation for the importance of the state’s public lands, with 82% saying public lands in the state support the economy, provide recreation opportunities and enhance quality of life, rather than being a fiscal burden and preventing creation of jobs in traditional industries. Arizonans clearly value the impact public lands have on their economy – 88% say public lands are an essential part of Arizona’s economy and 69% agree that the state's public lands help attract high quality employers and good jobs.

Arizona Voters Support Protections for Land, Water, Air and Wildlife

A majority (57%) of Arizona voters say that environmentally sensitive places on public lands should be permanently protected from oil and gas drilling. A 2012 Arizona poll of small businesses conducted by the Small Business Majority found that 73% support designating more of Arizona’s existing public lands as national monuments to help ensure natural areas and water in these regions are protected for future generations.

Arizona Voters Oppose Proposals to Sell Off Public Lands

There is scant support for selling off Arizona’s public lands as a way to reduce the nation’s budget deficit. Only 28% of voters support selling some land as a means of deficit reduction, while 67% oppose it. Half are strongly opposed.

Elected Officials Are Out of Touch

Far too many of Arizona’s public lands are under attack by Congress and the state legislature. For example, throughout the 112th and 113th Congresses, elected lawmakers introduced dozens of bills that sought to roll back protections for public lands. In addition, Arizona is one of seven western states that have passed, introduced, or explored legislation in the past year demanding that the federal government turn over millions of acres of federal public lands to the state. If the sponsors of these proposals succeed in their aims, these lands will be used in whatever way the new owner – state or private – wants to use them. This generally means maximizing private profits through resource extraction rather than managing for the long-term benefit and use of the public. To learn more about why these proposals are problematic, read the full report, Valuing Our Western Public Lands: Safeguarding Our Economy and Way of Life.

Attempts to Transfer Public Land Out of Public Ownership

In the Arizona legislature, S.B. 1332, which was introduced in the spring of 2012 but vetoed by the governor, would have required Congress to turn over 25 million acres of public lands to the state by the end of 2014, or the state would have sued. Proposition 120, a ballot measure defeated by voters, would have amended the state’s constitution to “declare Arizona’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over the ‘air, water, public lands, minerals, wildlife and other natural resources within the state’s boundaries.’”

Several bills proposed in the U.S. Congress would force the sale of public lands in Arizona:

●      American Land Act (H.R. 1017, 113th Congress), by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to sell 8 percent of their respective federal land to the highest bidder, annually until 2017. This year alone, the two agencies would be forced to sell off nearly 36 million acres of forest and public land to corporate interests.

●      Action Plan for Public Lands and Education Act (H.R. 2852, 112th Congress), by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to give away, free of charge, 5 percent of their lands to each Western state. This would leave 30 million acres in the West vulnerable to more resource extraction and development.

●      Disposal of Federal Lands Act (H.R. 1126, 112th Congress), by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming to sell off “excess” public lands to the highest bidder. This bill was also incorporated into the House budget bill in the 113th Congress.

●      Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act a.k.a. “Resolution Copper”(H.R. 687 and S. 339, 113th Congress), by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ). This proposal would swap public land near Superior, AZ with land owned by Resolution Copper mining, which would allow a massive copper mine to move forward in Southeast Arizona. The impact to water, wildlife habitat, and cultural resources from a mine of this scale would be devastating.

Attempts to Weaken Protection of Public Lands

For decades, cornerstone conservation laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) have protected public lands and natural resources. Recently, many members of Congress have been working to dismantle these vital protections and open public lands to increased resource exploitation and development. For example, in the first session of the 112th Congress, House Republicans voted 191 times to weaken environmental protections, halt wilderness designations, and remove protections for wildlife. For a list of some of the legislation that poses significant risks to our public lands, read the full report, Valuing Our Western Public Lands: Safeguarding Our Economy and Way of Life.

Why the Disconnect?

Why is there an ideological gap between the actions of our elected officials and the values of their constituents? Clearly the power and influence of industry lobbying and campaign contributions plays a role. But the Colorado College State of the Rockies poll offers an additional explanation: the majority of voters in western states are not aware of their representatives’ view on public lands issues. Indeed, survey data indicates that while most Arizona voters take a positive view of a candidate who supports protecting public lands and espouses pro-conservation positions, a majority (58%) say they are not sure what position their member of Congress has taken on protecting land, air and water.

Get Involved

It’s up to individual citizens to hold elected officials and decision makers accountable to the values that define Arizona’s public lands heritage. The most important thing you can do is let decision makers know that you are paying attention. To have your voice heard and demonstrate your commitment to preserving our public lands:

1.     Inspire your children and grandchildren to become the next generation of conservation leaders by taking them outside to hike, fish, hunt, and watch wildlife. Visit OPL’s Arizona Resources page for information about visiting Arizona’s public lands.

2.     Join local, regional, and national groups like the National Wildlife Federation that fight for your priorities. Visit OPL’s Arizona Resources page for a list of wildlife and conservation groups that work in Arizona.

3.     Take advantage of opportunities for citizen involvement in decisions affecting our public lands: public meetings and hearings with decision makers, public comments periods, town hall meetings, and other forms of citizen engagement.

4.     Reach out directly to your elected officials through letters, phone calls, or social media platforms. Tell them you value our public lands. Your representatives are duty-bound to listen. Visit the links below to find and contact your elected officials.

Contact Elected Officials About Public Lands Issues:


Click here for Resources about Arizona's Public Lands and Wildlife



Arizona Game and Fish Department, Economic Importance of Hunting and Fishing http://www.azgfd.gov/w_c/survey_results.shtml

Arizona Office of Tourism http://www.azot.gov/

Center for American Progress, Goad, J. and Kenworthy, T., State Efforts to ‘Reclaim’ Our Public Lands http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/GoadLandsReclaimBrief-1.pdf

Colorado College State of the Rockies Project, Conservation in the West Poll http://www.coloradocollege.edu/other/stateoftherockies/conservationinthewest/

Headwaters Economics, West Is Best: Protected Lands Promote Arizona Jobs and Higher Incomes http://headwaterseconomics.org/land/west-is-best-value-of-public-lands-az/

Outdoor Industry Association, The Outdoor Recreation Economy, Arizona http://www.outdoorindustry.org/images/ore_reports/AZ-arizona-outdoorrecreationeconomy-oia.pdf

Small Business Majority, Arizona Small Business Owners Support ‘All-of-the-Above’ Energy Policy that Protects Public Landshttp://www.smallbusinessmajority.org/small-business-research/public-lands/070312_arizona_public_lands_poll.php

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, Arizona http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/fhw11-az.pdf

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce Minority Staff, The Anti-Environment Record of the U.S. House of Representatives 112th Congress, 1stSession http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/sites/default/files/image_uploads/_Anti-Environment%20Report%20Final.pdf