The federal government owns 45.8 million acres of property in California, approximately 46 percent of the state’s total land area. Soon after President Trump took office in 2017, his administration began to threaten widespread rollbacks of protections on federal public lands. The State of California drafted California Senate Bill 50 (SB 50) in response to signals after the 2016 election that the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress were contemplating expansive sales of federal public lands, including national parks, wilderness areas, and monuments, to private parties. Through SB 50, California lawmakers sought to regulate the conveyance of federal public lands in the state from the federal government to private parties in an effort to discourage such conveyances and keep public lands public.
The Trump administration’s actions, aided by the Republican-controlled Congress during the first two years of the Trump presidency, have largely borne out the concerns of SB 50’s drafters. The Trump administration has altered federal public lands management by decreasing the size of national monuments, reducing habitat protections for endangered species, and expanding fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Meanwhile, Congress revoked a new Bureau of Land Management rule intended to increase public participation in federal land use planning and permitted oil leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, enabling President Trump’s natural resource management priorities in what some consider “the most substantial rollback in public lands protections in American history.” While the newest Congress has demonstrated a much greater willingness to protect public lands by passing the Natural Resources Management Act, the administration may still continue to repeal protections through executive action.
The federal government filed suit challenging the constitutionality of SB 50 and prevailed in the district court. In light of the outcome of that litigation, this In Brief examines alternative approaches that California might take to achieve the policy goals of SB 50. While not without challenges, the alternative likely to face the fewest constitutional and political barriers would be to regulate federal public lands transferred into private ownership.