Come election day, the good citizens of Arizona will decide whether to amend their state constitution, granting themselves sovereignty over the Grand Canyon, allowing themselves to “take it back” from the rest of us. The goal, apparently is to increase mining and other commercial uses in the canyon, and funnel the proceeds into Arizona coffers.
The plan reminds me of the story about a dog walking across a river on a log, carrying a huge fresh bone. About halfway across the river, he looked down and spied another dog carrying a similar bone. He started growling, and bared his teeth; the other dog growled and bared its teeth. The growling and teeth-baring continued until finally the log-walker could no longer stand the idea that there might be another dog with as much, or even more than he had. He dropped his bone, jumped in the river after the other dog …
It seems a form of partial secession, this idea that the elected leaders of a state can unilaterally negate a nearly 120-year-old contract that has protected a nation monument for the cultural wealth of all the states. Worse, it clearly is a move to avoid making decisions about how to pay for roads, water, and other state assets and necessities they promised – or implied at election time – would not have a cost.
The problem of tight budgets and tax exempt land is not limited to western states. I live just over a hill from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the deciding – at least the most famous – battle of the American Civil War. Gettysburg is the county seat, home to Gettysburg College, a seminary, numerous historic and still active churches, and the Gettysburg National Military Park. The borough is more than half-owned by non-taxpaying entities. Its leaders complain every year – not completely without merit – that its residents’ taxes are abnormally high because of all the tourists that come through town, and all the properties that are not subject to tax.
Of course, one also could argue that the tourists leave truckloads of money in the town, in souvenir shops and restaurants, that result in employment and tax collections. County and borough offices provide needed services and those workers give back a portion of their wages in income and property taxes. And the college, with its own police department, does not put a significant strain on borough services – in fact, though the borough has claimed not to have the numbers, I suspect fines paid by underage, alcohol consuming college students contribute significantly to running the town.
The National Park Service also complains annually that its budgets are adversely affected by Congress refusing to provide adequate funding for personnel and services.
On the other hand, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, R-Marcellus, recently signed into law a bill that authorizes state officials to lease state properties – in particular, land hosting state-run post-secondary educational institutions – to natural gas drillers prospecting for the fossil-made fuel. Royalties collected will, lawmakers say, replace the nearly 20 percent slash Corbett inflicted on the schools two years ago.
The trouble with money is government uses it just like most families do. The more we have, the more we spend.
So what happens when prospectors find uranium or other valuable minerals in the Grand Canyon? In Pennsylvania, the state’s contracts with natural gas developers declare that the land being leased is, in effect, private property, owned, while the lease exists, by the companies. Would that apply as well to leases in that millennially-aged carving in Arizona, with rafters and hikers being denied access while mineral developers dynamite the canyon walls?
And what happens to what currently remains of the Colorado – that no longer flows to the ocean, but does provide drinking water to Los Angeles, hundreds of miles away? Sorry, Angeleans – there’s cash in them there walls.
The Beehive State has a similar gambit in place. In March, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed the “Transfer of Public Lands Act,” demanding the federal government hand over certain public lands by 2014. The state legislature reportedly has declared its intent to sell some of the newly claimed land to resource developers, and lease other parcels.
Opponents say the Utah plan will cost the state more than it will gain from sales and leases. Of particular note is the loss of federally-paid land management, and the money tourists will no longer leave in souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels as they stop visiting sites to which they have been denied access.
Add to the monetary expenses the loss of history, culture and recreation all of us need. Is there any wonder kids can ace the latest electronic battle game with one hand wrapped around a pizza, but don’t know where their water comes from? For many of them exercise, history, and exposure to nature, is only a few miles from home. But for too many that land is steadily moving farther through actions such as Utah has taken, Arizona is poised to take, and Pennsylvania has given many signs of contemplating.
I have, on occasion, been short on money and prompted to sell something valuable to get the cash. In the end, the important thing was gone and so was the money. That’s OK with a motorcycle; if you want one badly enough later, you can buy another one.
You can’t buy another Grand Canyon. It’s one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, millions of years in the making. It will be a very long time before another one can be carved.
Photo by Markusnl
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