April 5, 2017

Appeal filed in forest access case

By Damien M. Schiff Senior Attorney

Today, we filed our notice of appeal in Granat v. USDA, a challenge to the Forest Service’s massive route-closure initiative on the Plumas National Forest in northeastern California. In 2005, the Forest Service promulgated a Travel Management Rule. The Rule’s purpose was to formalize and combine the existing network of legally authorized government- and user-created routes on national forests throughout the country. Unfortunately for the Plumas National Forest, the Forest Service used the Rule to embark on an anti-access campaign, ultimately choosing to close hundreds of miles of user-created routes. Exacerbating this bad policy decision is the fact that the environmental impact statement accompanying the Forest Service’s shut-down was gravely inadequate. Perhaps its two most important deficiencies concern the analysis of potential alternatives to the Forest Service’s proposed road closures, and the quality and quantity of interaction the agency had with affected local governments.

On the first point, the National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to analyze not just the expected environmental impacts of a proposed action, but also possible alternatives to the proposal. The point of this alternatives analysis is to provide the agency and the public with important information that may convince decision-makers of the desirability of alternative courses of action. With respect to the Plumas’ travel management plan, the Forest Service had to decide whether to keep open or to close some 1100 miles of user-created routes. Yet, in weighing the pros and cons of designating or closing routes within that existing network of user-created routes, the agency reviewed only a small subset—about 400 miles. In other words, in the alternatives analysis the Forest Service gave no consideration at all to the desirability, or even feasibility, of designating any routes within the remaining 700 miles of existing user-created trails. By artificially narrowing the possible array of alternatives, the Forest Service essentially guaranteed a public access shut-down.

On the second point, the Travel Management Rule expressly requires the Forest Service to “coordinate” with local governments in deciding which user-created routes to designate for continued use. The point of that obligation is to ensure that the planning and policy interests of local governments, and ultimately the welfare of the residents they represent, will be well served. Such coordination is critical for Plumas and Butte Counties. A substantial portion of their territory falls within the Plumas. Hence, the degree to which the Forest Service allows or disallows reasonable public access on existing user-created routes has a profound impact on the Counties. For example, the Counties rely on user-created routes to ensure adequate access for the provision of emergency, law enforcement, and other critical governmental services to their residents. Unfortunately, the Forest Service’s mass route closure thwarts the Counties’ ability to implement reasonable transportation plans. It also hurts significantly their local economies, by reducing tourism from off-road vehicle enthusiasts and other recreationalists. Notwithstanding the obvious importance of coordination, the Forest Service gave little heed to the Counties’ interest. For the agency, coordination meant merely an acknowledgement of comments without any effort to accommodate the Counties’ legitimate concerns. The agency’s deaf-ear approach hurts local communities.

We hope to complete briefing on our appeal by the end of the year, and argue the case before the Ninth Circuit sometime in 2018.

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Granat v. U.S. Department of Agriculture

Using the pretext of a transportation plan update, the U.S. Forest Service shut down thousands of previously accessible roads and trails—nearly 700 miles’ worth—within the Plumas National Forest. By forbidding any motor vehicle access, the policy prevents Amy Granat, who cannot walk unaided, from using a motorized vehicle to access vast areas of the forest. Granat and other recreational users of the forest challenged the Service’s cavalier decision to withhold national forest land from members of the public without justification. The Service failed to comply with federal environmental laws that require a searching investigation of the impacts of barring access. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling which affirmed the Forest Service’s travel management rule.

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