The title may seem paradoxical, at first. But it gets at one of the most important and misunderstood aspects of federalism. Contrary to “states rights” advocates, federalism does not mean that the federal government is limited but state and local governments can do whatever they want. Rather, federalism is a means of protecting liberty by dividing government power among two levels of government, with each checking the other.
This week, PLF filed the final brief in the Supreme Court asking it to review a challenge to California’s suction dredge mining ban. The case (Rinehart v. California) tees up this distinction perfectly. Although the case challenges the state ban as preempted by federal law, it will protect the states’ proper role in environmental federalism in the long run.
Last week, the Washington Times published my op-ed on PLF’s challenge to California’s ban on suction dredge mining. From the introduction,
If you ask a rural Westerner how he feels about federal lands, the response will likely contain plenty of four-letter words. For decades, decisions made by faraway bureaucrats to restrict the productive uses of these lands have significantly affected nearby property owners and local economies, creating a constant source of conflict.
. . .
When these federal decisions are criticized, supporters respond that only the federal government can decide how “our” lands should be used. Yet blue states and environmentalists do not think that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. When Congress decides to put federal lands to productive use, they proclaim that states in which they hold political power should be able to overrule federal decisions at will.
You can read the rest here. For more on this case and conflict over federal lands, read this and this.
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.
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.
In the wake of the election, there’s hope that environmentalists will discover the benefits of federalism to the environment. Those benefits could be huge. Federalism pits states against each other in competition for voters, taxpayers, industry, and—since many state politicians have eyes on national office—policy credibility. As a result, states can serve as “laboratories of democracy” by experimenting with novel solutions to difficult public policy problems.
That experimentation is urgently needed. Environmental issues are complex and plagued by uncertainty. However, most federal environmental laws are one-size-fits-all and haven’t changed since the Cold War. Unfortunately, this week brought news that some environmental groups, at least, are going to obstruct environmental federalism. The Center for Biological Diversity has threatened to sue the state of Washington over its mining regulations, alleging that they do not conform with the federal Endangered Species Act.