The Supreme Court agreed today to review the standing of an environmental group challenging a Forest Service management plan for the Sierra Nevada.
At issue is a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling for the Pacific Rivers Council that invalidated a regional management plan for 11 national forests covering 11.5 million acres.
The council successfully argued in appeals court that the Forest Service's 2004 revised environmental impact statement and framework failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act for assessing potential damage to fish species.
The case dates back to the mid-1990s, when Congress found habitat in the sprawling Sierra Nevada -- home to 61 fish species and 35 amphibian species -- had become severely degraded. It directed the Forest Service to develop a new environmental impact statement for the service's 11 management plans.
After years of delay, the Clinton administration issued a final statement to conserve and repair aquatic ecosystems in November 2001.
The George W. Bush administration re-examined the statement and in January 2004 issued revisions. According to court documents, the new document made significant changes, including "substantially" increasing total acreage to be logged and the size of trees that could be harvested.
It also paved the way for new logging roads and reconstruction of existing roads and reduced grazing restrictions for commercial and recreational livestock.
The Pacific Rivers Council brought a lawsuit in May 2005 contending that the revised framework did not analyze the environmental consequences of those changes and, therefore, did not comply with NEPA for fish and amphibians.
At issue for the court is whether the environmental group has standing to bring the lawsuit: In other words, could the group prove it was harmed by the agency's action.
The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit in a February 2012 ruling said the group has standing. They "have used, and will continue to use, the national forests of the Sierra in a variety of places and in a variety of ways," 9th Circuit Judge William Fletcher wrote. The court held that the 2004 framework didn't comply with NEPA for fish but did for amphibians.
In asking the Supreme Court to take the case, the Forest Service argued that the environmental group failed to meet that bar.
Pacific Rivers Council "has not identified even one project that will adversely affect even one member," the service wrote in court documents.
The agency also wrote the challenge was "un-ripe" for a lawsuit because it had yet to sign off on a specific project that would threaten the forest's ecosystem.
"Absent approval of a site-specific project or other irreversible commitment of resources by the Forest Service, [Pacific Rivers Council]'s challenge to that programmatic decision is merely an abstract disagreement not appropriate for judicial review," the agency wrote.
The case, Pacific Rivers Council v. U.S. Forest Service, is sure to be closely watched by environmental groups and regulators because standing is often a critical barrier to advocates' efforts to challenge regulatory actions. It also marks one of the few instances in which the government asked the Supreme Court to hear an environmental case.
Court passes on 2 environmental cases
The Supreme Court also declined to hear two environmental cases today, leaving lower-court rulings intact.
One, The New 49'ers Inc. v. Karuk Tribe of California, involved whether the Forest Service had violated the Endangered Species Act when it approved gold mining activities along the Klamath River in the Pacific Northwest.
The 9th Circuit held last June that the agency violated the statute because the 2004 approval constituted an "agency action" and the mining along 25 miles of the river and its tributaries posed a risk to the critical habitat of threatened salmon. The ruling invalidated the agency's approval.
The justices also decided against hearing a complicated case involving a host of Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act transgressions by Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe Co. at its manufacturing facility in Phillipsburg, N.J.
A federal appeals court ruled in September that the company violated several permits for air and water emissions, burning hazardous waste paint in its furnace and dumping waste into the Delaware River. Lower courts also ruled that the company committed several workplace safety violations.