Public Lands Litigation Update – March 2022

The last Forest Service “weekly” we received was dated March 11.  In lieu of their summaries for the rest of the month …

(Links are to court documents or articles.)

Court decision in Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. Munoz (D. Mont.)

On March 8, the district court ruled that the logging in the Elk-Smith Project did not violate the Roadless Area Conservation Rule because logging 1393 acres within a roadless area was “incidental” to the fuel treatment purpose in accordance with the exception provided by the Rule:  “The Forest Service has limited its proposed timber cutting in several well-delineated ways to ensure that it remains secondary to the primary purpose of the controlled burn.”  The court first held that this exception could be used for fuel reduction projects even though there is another exception that specifically mentions fuel reduction.

Court decision in Montana Wildlife Federation v. Bernhardt (D. Mont.)

On March 11, the district court replicated an earlier decision by ordering that an additional five oil and gas lease sales (“hundreds” of leases) in Wyoming and Nevada be vacated because they did not comply with the 2015 sage grouse conservation plan’s requirements to prioritize leases outside of sage-grouse habitat.  (The press release includes a link to the opinion.)

Court decision in Friends of the Clearwater v. Probert (D. Idaho)

On March 12, the district court invalidated motorized use of a trail in a recommended wilderness area (for a second time) because it violated the forest plan, stating, “The Forest Service’s decision to allow continued motorized vehicle use of Fish Lake Trail — which at minimum keeps (elk habitat effectiveness) at 90% and prevents (elk habitat effectiveness) from improving to 95% — equates to non-compliance with the Forest Plan,” which favors elk habitat.  While new analysis indicated motorized use would not diminish elk habitat, the court said the forest officials could not retroactively apply new data as a basis for a decision that was not available at the time the decision was made.  The judge also said agency officials did not properly document how they planned motorized use on the Fish Lake Trail so as to minimize damage to the environment as required by the Travel Management Rule.  (See also this article.)

Court decision in Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges v. Haaland (9th Cir.)

On March 16, in a split decision, the circuit court reversed the Alaska district court’s decision and approved a land exchange that would allow construction of an 11-mile road across the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to facilitate air transportation for residents of King Cove (whose native corporation would provide lands for the exchange). The exchange was found to be in compliance with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and met APA requirements because it adequately explained the change in the government’s position, but other hurdles remain because the exchange decision does not “authorize” the road.  (The article includes a link to the opinion.)

Settlement in U. S. A. v. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Company (D. Colo.)

On March 21, the railroad agreed to pay $20 million to the federal government, and has agreed to hire a fire management officer, submit an annual fire prevention plan to the U.S. Forest Service, consult with experts on fire mitigation and prevention, and to deposit $100,000 annually into a self-insured catastrophic wildfire fund to cover future costs of putting out wildfires thought to be sparked by the train. However, the train company continues to deny responsibility for the fire or that the U.S. is entitled to fire suppression costs. (The article contains a link to the consent decree. The private lawsuit referred to has also been settled.)

Court decision in Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center v. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (D. Oregon)

On March 23, the district court denied an injunction sought against a Biological Opinion from July 2020 assessing the likely effects of the Bear Grub Project and Round Oak Project, proposed by BLM’s Medford District, on the northern spotted owl and its designated critical habitat. The court agreed with or deferred to the FWS regarding long-term effects, non-resident “floater” owls, the experimental barred owl control program, certainty of mitigation measures and incidental take provisions.

Sierra Snowmobile Foundation v. U. S. Forest Service (E.D. Cal.)

Also in March, WildEarth Guardians and the California Wilderness Coalition intervened in a lawsuit brought by snowmobiling interests in October that is challenging the Forest Service’s decision to designate over-snow vehicle (OSV) trails and use areas on the Stanislaus National Forest because the Forest Service allegedly has not properly considered the impacts on an endangered population of the Sierra Nevada red fox.  (The article includes a link to a prior press release that links to the complaint and the brief supporting intervention.)


Leave a Comment