In a 2-1 decision, which allowed the Big Thorne timber project to proceed on the Tongass National Forest, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court opinion that the Forest Service had complied with NFMA when it adopted forest plan direction related to managing old growth forest for deer to support viability of Alexander Archipelago wolves (an at-risk species). The dissent pointed out that prior Ninth Circuit precedent had established that:
the forest plan must comply with substantive requirements of the [NFMA] designed to ensure continued diversity of plant and animal communities and the continued viability of wildlife in the forest . . . .” Idaho Sporting Cong., Inc. v. Rittenhouse, 305 F.3d 957, 961–62 (9th Cir. 2002). Specifically, 36 C.F.R. § 219.19 requires that “[f]ish and wildlife habitat shall be managed to maintain viable populations of existing native and desired non-native vertebrate species in the planning area.” Our law is clear that an agency must abide by its own regulations.
The majority (both judges appointed by republican presidents) charted a new course, citing a a BLM case that had nothing to do with NFMA:
Instead, an agency need only supply “a rational connection between the facts found and the conclusions made.” Or. Nat. Res. Council Fund v. Brong, 492 F.3d 1120, 1131 (9th Cir. 2007).
Instead of recognizing the language of NFMA that requires plans to “provide for plant and animal diversity,” the majority opinion cites language that refers to the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act (contained in a case that was not about forest plans). It concludes:
The NFMA gives the Forest Service flexibility because the Service has many different goals—conservation, commerce, recreation, and so on. See 16 U.S.C. § 1604(e)(2); McNair, 537 F.3d at 993–94. The statute reflects a congressional judgment that balancing these goals calls for policy judgments—judgments that often require trade-offs among worthy objectives, such as wolves and logging jobs.
In other words, NFMA did not take away any of the discretion provided by MUSYA. This should be news to a lot of people, including the Forest Service. This case would be a really good candidate for en banc review by the Ninth Circuit.