States cannot veto Congress’ decisions to put federal lands to productive uses

For decades, the federal government’s ownership of vast areas of the west, and its decisions to restrict the productive uses of these lands, have been a constant source of conflict. States, local communities, and neighboring property owners complain that these decisions, which can have significant impacts on their local economies, should not be made by distant politicians and bureaucrats in Washington.

However, their calls for the federal government to transfer these lands to states or private property owners, as the government did in eastern states, have been sharply opposed by environmentalists. They argue that only the federal government can decide how “our” lands should be used. States have to accept Congress’ decisions about these lands.

seal_of_california2c_department_of_education2c_1430_n_street2c_sacramento2c_california
California’ seal features a prospector, but the state has recently cooled on mining

But the tables have turned in a case that Pacific Legal Foundation is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear. Federal law encourages mining on many federal lands. California disagrees with Congress’ decision and, spurred on by environmentalists, has adopted an outright ban on suction dredge mining within the state, including on federal lands. Apparently, all that talk about states having to accept Congress’ decisions about federal land had an unstated qualification—except those states where environmentalists hold political power.

California’s mining ban is illegal under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which forbids state laws that obstruct or frustrate the purposes of federal law. That’s clearly the case here. The Mining Law of 1872 declares federal lands “free and open” to mining. The Supreme Court and Congress have acknowledged the obvious purpose of this law—to encourage mining on federal lands.

Yet the California Supreme Court upheld the ban against a challenge brought by Brandon Rinehart, a miner who has long worked his federal claim using a suction dredge. In a decision that conflicts with prior cases from the U.S. Supreme Court, Eighth Circuit, Federal Circuit, and Colorado Supreme Court, the California Supreme Court declared that the state may frustrate federal mining policy at will. That decision was wrong and the Supreme Court should take up the case and reverse it.

Federal preemption is not a self-serving, one-way ratchet. If red states have to accept Congress’ decisions to restrict the use of federal lands, blue states have to accept Congress’ decision to encourage productive uses. If they don’t want these decisions to be made by distant politicians and bureaucrats, they should join the push to reduce federal land ownership. But, in the meantime, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

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