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Trump administration steps up war with California over environmental protections

Trump administration steps up war with California over environmental protections
Chuckwalla Bench, part of a federal wilderness area, is among the land that could be stripped of environmental protections under new Trump administration policies. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Trump administration stepped up its offensive Monday on California's environmental laws, suing to reverse a state law that seeks to handcuff the federal government from selling any of the 45.8 million acres of property it controls in the state.

The Justice Department lawsuit, filed in Sacramento, is the latest federal effort to roll back California's strict environmental protections as the Trump administration seeks to open more land in the West for mining, drilling and other interests.

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The Trump administration has challenged California's policies on several fronts. Last month, the Justice Department sued to block three California state laws, saying they were an unconstitutional attempt to thwart enforcement of federal immigration laws.

At issue in the latest lawsuit is a California law that gives a state lands commission the power to block the sale, donation or exchange of federal lands. It was passed in October after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced plans to cut protections for 10 national monuments in the state.

"The Constitution empowers the federal government — not state legislatures — to decide when and how federal lands are sold," U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions said Monday in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

"California has once again passed an extreme statute found in no other state, to obstruct the federal government," Jesse Panuccio, the acting associate attorney general, told reporters at the Justice Department.

"This is another example of California ignoring federal law and no state legislature can, statute by statute, undermine the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution," he said.

The California law, called the Public Lands Protection Act, attempts to give the state veto power over any sales of federal land — not just parks or wilderness — in the state.

It says the state won't recognize any transaction unless the California State Lands Commission has the right of first refusal over any deal. The state Legislature's own analysis of the bill said it raised "substantial constitutional questions."

The author of the bill, state Sen. Benjamin Allen (D-Santa Monica), argued that the law didn't actually prevent any sales — just that the state wouldn't recognize the deed of sale as legal unless the Lands Commission approved it.

Allen said his bill was "very reasonable."

"We're not trying to seize the land, we're not trying to take the land," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the land sales the federal government wants to do will be just fine. What we want to do is protect against the more extreme cases that have been threatened."

Justice Department lawyers said that's an effective ban and a distinction without a difference.

According to the Justice Department, the Lands Commission has asserted its authority to intervene in several land deals, including a planned auction of 1.7 acres of U.S Postal Service property. No one bid on the property, department lawyers said Monday.

The complaint says the state law has thrown a wrench into a proposed development called Admiral's Cove, involving Navy property in Alameda; a proposal to sell 5.9 acres of vineyard property in Santa Barbara County; and a Veterans Affairs plan to rebuild its West Los Angeles campus by leasing land for housing, and to provide an easement for the Purple Line Metro project.

One development deal in Dublin involving 78 acres of Army land was approved by the lands commission.

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The Justice Department says the law violates the Constitution's supremacy clause, giving federal laws priority over state ones.

The department also says California is ignoring the terms of its admission into the union, citing a provision in the 1850 law that says the state "shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the public lands within its limits."

But California officials and environmental activists vowed to resist.

"Yet again, Donald Trump and his administration are attacking our state and our very way of life," said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who also serves on the Lands Commission.

"Safeguarding public lands is in our DNA as Californians — so much so that we have enshrined the principle in our state Constitution. We will use every legal and administrative tool to thwart Trump's plans to auction off California's heritage to the highest bidder," Newsom said.

The California law "is aimed at keeping public lands public, even if the federal government decides to sell them off," said Annie Notthoff, an official at the nonpartisan Natural Resources Defense Council. "More than 75% of Californians recently polled say they oppose Trump's rollback of protections for public lands. This suit is just another tone-deaf greedy grab."

Environmentalists have been seething about an order directing the Bureau of Land Management to rewrite a protection plan for the state's deserts, and California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has filed a number of lawsuits challenging the administration's calls to permit oil drilling off California's coasts, and to refashion Obama administration rules that protect streams and wetlands.

"Our public lands should not be on the auction block for the highest bidder," Becerra said.

Twitter: @jtanfani

UPDATES:

3 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction.

This article was originally published at 1:40 p.m.

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