A federal appeals court recently upheld a ruling that a state cannot unilaterally cut timber on federal lands in order to protect its citizens. The case involved a New Mexico statute. New Mexico has suffered major fires originating on federal land in recent years and felt the US Forest Service was not properly protecting land and structures near the National Forests. As a result, in 2001, the state legislature enacted a law that allowed counties to “take such actions as are necessary” to remove undergrowth and fire-damaged trees in order to protect state and private land from potential fires. Otero County then implemented a plan to thin parts of the Lincoln National Forest, and the federal government sought a court order to stop it.
The state argued that the federal government only had those authorities specifically conveyed to it, and any other powers were reserved to the states. However, the court held that the U.S. Constitution made it clear that the federal government had authority over federal lands and any state law which conflicted with that authority was invalid. While states have the ability to enforce their criminal and civil laws on those lands, they cannot exert any authority which conflicts with federal authority. Because there is a federal regulation requiring the Forest Service to approve of any cutting or damage to any forest products, the New Mexico statute conflicted with this federal law and therefore was invalid.