Dana de la Cruz
In the latest legal clash between the President and the nation’s most populous state, the Trump administration sued California on Monday, April 2 over a state law that limits the sale of federal lands. This lawsuit represents another failure of the Trump administration to align itself with the wishes of its constituents, threatening California’s commitment to environmental protection and, more broadly, the state’s right to determine what can and cannot take place within its own borders.
Enacted last October, the Public Lands Protection Act (SB 50) gives California the right to block the purchase of any instate federal land, requiring federal land transfers to comply with state regulations before they can legally be recognized by the state government.
The law, part of the “Preserve California” legislative package, is crucial to countering the Trump administration’s environmental stances. President Trump has previously expressed desires to open federal lands in the West to mining, drilling, and other energy exploration, generating anxiety for a state that prizes environmental protection. SB 50 allows state officials to block sales to resource extraction companies, a safeguard against the federal administration’s aggressive energy agenda.
“We have a sacred duty to take whatever actions we can to protect public lands from any sale or lease that would result in their loss or degradation,” said Senator Ben Allen, who authored the law. “SB 50 will put the state in a strong position to defend federal lands in California against those threats.”
Santa Barbara County, where about half of the land is federally owned, absolutely needs such defense. The Los Padres National Forest, which spans much of the county, is home to several wildlife reserves as well as a sanctuary for endangered condors. It’s a troubling location to imagine oil extraction; environmentalists have been battling against fracking in Los Padres for over a decade. SB 50 would help prevent reckless drilling operations from harming national forests in California.
The federal government also owns a large portion of the Santa Barbara Channel, home to 23 oil platforms and an undeveloped but potentially lucrative oil field. New leases are restricted under current policy, but the channel is a sought-after extraction site for oil companies, raising fears of drilling expansions. Again, SB 50 can help the state protect the federal waters in the channel — where the memory of the 1969 oil spill lingers — from further environmental trauma.
However, the Department of Justice lambasted the law as “unconstitutional,” arguing that it violates federal authority granted by the Supremacy Clause, which gives federal laws precedence over any conflicting state laws. SB 50, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, also violates the law that admitted California into the United States.
Though Sessions has expressed confidence in his arguments, SB 50 has a substantial legal backing. The statute does not affect land prices, nor does it explicitly prohibit specific activities on federal land.
Furthermore, state governments should have some say in the use of federal land within their borders. It makes little sense, for example, for the federal government to invest in offshore drilling in California, where 69% of residents oppose offshore drilling, as the Public Policy Institute of California reported.
California is not, as Sessions may suggest, making power grabs with its so-called “extreme” legislation. SB 50 is California’s response to a broken land management system — a preemptive measure against anticipated environmental damages. It seeks to satisfy public demands the federal government blatantly opposes.
Other legal battles between California and the Trump administration, concerning topics like DACA and marijuana legalization, share this common theme. The federal government is so out of touch with its constituents that state governments feel the need to protect themselves from potentially damaging federal policies.