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Trump Administration Sues California Over Public Lands Law in Further Reform of U.S. Environmental Policy

by CalWild volunteer Brandon Kim

The battle between California and the Trump regime ratcheted up a notch last month when the Justice Department filed a lawsuit in response to state legislation intended to discourage the federal government from selling public lands.

Attorney Jeff Sessions, in a statement recorded by the Washington Post regarding the lawsuit, argued that the law is only the latest in a series of “extreme” attempts to frustrate an embattled federal government. California has been mired in a series of legal conflicts with the Trump administration in recent months, most notably regarding its sanctuary cities law in early March. Sessions, however, had little comment regarding the actual intent of the public lands law pushed by California Governor Jerry Brown (D).

The state law in question was designed to preserve the integrity of California’s wild lands by granting the state the right of first refusal to acquire any federal public lands the Trump regime may put on the auction block. It also authorizes the State Lands Commission to seek legal relief to contest conveyance of federal public lands to private interests and applies a civil penalty of up to $5,000 against anyone knowingly applying for a deed to convey public lands. Approved by the California Legislature and signed by Governor Brown in 2017, SB 49 was clearly intended to be a shot across the bow of a federal administration intent on dismantling National Monuments and offering millions of public acres up for oil and gas development.

Forty-five percent of California is administered by the federal government, including National Parks, Forests, and Wildlife Refuges, as well as public domain lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Trump’s targeting of national monuments in particular is nothing new: just last year, the president decided to significantly reduce the area covered by the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments in Utah, a decision ultimately met by nearly unanimous backlash from Democratic lawmakers and Native American tribes. The administration also has six monuments in California in its crosshairs, but so far has not announced any decision to reduce their size or weaken their protective management.

The DOJ’s lawsuit – which, first and foremost, claims that California’s new law illegally blocks the government’s management of federal land and is thus in violation of the Constitution – only further escalates Trump’s battle against conservation groups such as CalWild and their goals of preserving the national public lands that Americans have loved for almost 150 years.

The implications of a legal victory for the Trump Administration are immense – for one, such a decision would likely be challenged by California leaders, and set future precedent for possible cases regarding federal policy towards the protection of national lands. On a smaller scale, the repeal of such a law could pave the way towards possible decisions on the future of California’s national parks and monuments in a fashion similar to those made regarding Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante. President Trump has on numerous occasions signaled his support for the U.S. mining and drilling industry, a sentiment that may carry over to his siding with the general conservative stance on the economic development of federal lands.

No matter the final court ruling on the case, California leaders have promised to fight for the state’s national lands.

“Our public lands should not be on the auction block to the highest bidder,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement reported by the New York Times. “We’re prepared, as always, to do what it takes to protect our people, our resources, and our values.”