June 20, 2013

Enviros give up Sierra Nevada forest challenge

By Damien M. Schiff Senior Attorney

In Pacific Rivers Council v. United States Forest Service, environmental groups challenged the environmental review documents associated with the Forest Service’s 2004 framework to govern timber harvesting in the Sierra Nevada National Forest.  (Basically, the environmentalists disagreed with the government’s decision to reduce forest fire risks through timber harvesting, thinning, etc.).  The district court ruled against the environmentalists, but the Ninth Circuit reversed in part, holding that the Service had failed adequately to assess the framework’s impact on certain fish.  In reaching that conclusion, the Ninth Circuit also rejected the Service’s argument that the environmentalists lacked standing to challenge the framework, and that their claims were unripe.  The Supreme Court then granted the Service’s cert petition, and the case was slated for argument next term.

But in the meantime things continued unfavorably for the environmentalists back in the district court.  Although the district court ruled on remand that the Service must complete a supplemental environmental impact statement, the court declined to enjoin any timber sales or harvests, or to impose the pre-2004 framework during the agency remand period.  Consequently, the environmentalists decided that there wasn’t much left to defend of their “victory,” and accordingly asked the Court to dismiss.

On Monday, the Court agreed and dismissed the petition.  The main impact of the Court’s action is to wipe out the Ninth Circuit’s decision.  That is probably a good outcome for those who favor productive use of national forest lands, as the lower court’s decision threatened to make “programmatic” environmental review particularly difficult.

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