(CN) - New Mexico cannot unilaterally declare it has the right to cut down trees in national forests without permission from the Forest Service, a federal judge ruled.
In 2011, Otero County, New Mexico responded to the high-risk fire conditions it was experiencing by declaring a state of emergency and passing a resolution that asserted it was empowered to "remove or log fire-damaged trees within the area of disaster," which included 60,000 acres inside the Lincoln National Forest.
To justify its actions, the county cited New Mexico Statute § 4-36-11, which declares that since the U.S. Forestry Service had not acted to remove undergrowth contributing to the fire conditions, the federal agency had forfeited its jurisdictional supremacy over the national forest lands.
This lack alleged lack of care over the lands, left a "jurisdictional vacuum" which "requires the state of New Mexico to acknowledge its obligations as a sovereign power to protect the lives and property of its citizens" by taking whatever actions deemed necessary to reduce the threat of catastrophic fires, the statute said.
The clearing of live trees from the Lincoln National Forest had already begun in February 2012 when a civil case was brought by the United States on behalf of the Forestry Service against New Mexico and Otero County.
The federal government claimed the county's plan to clear timber from the forest amounted to an "unauthorized trespass on lands belonging to the United States and ...t heft of property" and that the county resolution and state statute were both unconstitutional, pointing out that only Congress has the authority to control federal lands.
Chief U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo ruled last week that both the state statute and county resolution violate the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, and that "the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding."
The court further found that the 10th Amendment "does not reserve for New Mexico any sovereign police power" and declared that both the resolution and the statute are unconstitutional and invalid.
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