Advertisement

In victory for Trump administration, judge strikes down California federal lands law

The state has been at war with the federal government over environmental issues.

Yosemite National Park. CREDIT: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Yosemite National Park. CREDIT: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

A California law attempting to restrict the federal government’s ability to assert authority over public land transfers has been declared unconstitutional, handing a win to the Trump administration in an ongoing feud between the government and the Golden State over environmental issues.

U.S. District Judge William Shubb ruled in Sacramento against a state law giving California the ability to restrict the U.S. government’s ability to sell or transfer public lands to private entities. Senate Bill 50 (SB 50) gave the California State Lands Commission first right of refusal in instances involving many public land transfers.

Shubb found the one-year-old law unconstitutional because, he wrote, it “trespasses on the federal government’s ability to convey land to whomever it wants.” He ruled on Thursday that SB 50 violated the so-called doctrine of intergovernmental immunity, along with the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution, which is meant to govern conflicts between U.S. and state law.

The Trump administration greeted the news by taking a swipe at California.

“The court’s ruling is a firm rejection of California’s assertion that, by legislation, it could dictate how and when the federal government sells federal land,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a statement, after suing the state over the law in April. “This [SB 50] was a stunning assertion of constitutional power by California, and it was properly and promptly dismissed by the district judge.”

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed SB 50 into law in 2017 in response to the Trump administration’s efforts to relax protections for public lands. Concern that precious natural spaces may be sold to miners as well as oil drillers and developers has worried green groups and activists in the state. California is home to around 46 million acres of federal land, including the state’s beloved Yosemite National Park.

Advertisement

The Lands Commission has said it is analyzing the ruling but had no comment as of Friday. Other state officials slammed Thursday’s decision and indicated that they will continue to pursue efforts to block the Trump administration’s land sales in California.

“We will use every legal and administrative tool to thwart Trump’s plans to auction off California’s heritage to the highest bidder,” said California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor as a Democrat and is also a member of the Lands Commission. “Yet again, Donald Trump and his administration are attacking our state and our very way of life.”

Long-time Trump administration foe Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, said in a statement that Californians are “prepared, as always, to do what it takes to protect our people, our resources and our values.” Becerra has filed numerous lawsuits against the Trump administration, many directly touching on environmental and climate issues.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has come under fire for efforts to sell off public lands, in addition to shrinking national monuments and parks. Fossil fuel lobbyists have repeatedly pushed the Trump administration to open up areas under federal control to oil and gas drilling and exploration, among other efforts.

In California, where the state has tussled with the government repeatedly over an ongoing federal rollback of environmental regulations, moves to sell off and reduce public lands have sparked outcry. Three months ago, the Trump administration announced it would move to open around 1.6 million acres of public land in California to fracking and conventional oil drilling, ending a five-year moratorium on such efforts. Green groups at the time slammed the move and called on Brown to ban fracking, something the governor has thus far declined to do.

Advertisement

Renewed tension in California over land transfers comes in the midst of another heated debate between the state and the Trump administration.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last spring that the government would seek to revoke a waiver allowing California to set its own vehicle efficiency standards, a popular effort experts say is crucial to fighting climate change and public health issues. In August, the agency indicated that it would move forward with that effort, sparking bipartisan outrage from lawmakers.