Unanimous decision upholds recreation access ruling in Utah District Court
With Bill Dart, BlueRibbon Coalition Executive Director
In a unanimous decision June 14, 2004, the Supreme Court upheld a Utah District Court ruling dismissing claims brought in 1999 by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and other anti-access groups against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The suit targeted BLM’s alleged inaction in managing off-highway vehicle (“OHV”) access. SUWA’s demands to immediately close nine popular OHV recreation areas were rejected by the Utah District Court, but that decision was reversed by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The BLM, the BlueRibbon Coalition and the Utah Shared Access Alliance (USA-ALL) petitioned for review by the Supreme Court. The Court granted BLMâ€™s request and heard oral argument in March of this year.
The case before the Supreme Court turned on a fairly complex jurisdictional point. The Administrative Procedure Act allows lawsuits to compel nondiscretionary actions that have been unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed. The OHV groups convinced the District Court that SUWAâ€™s claims went far beyond this standard and were really attempting to dictate the everyday activity of the BLM. Thus, the case focused on the degree to which private parties dissatisfied with government action can sue the agency under an alternate “failure to act” theory.
Justice Antonin Scalia said SUWA’s argument would insert the court into the day-to-day operations of the agency and “would divert BLM’s energies from other projects throughout the country that are in fact more pressing. While such a decree might please the environmental plaintiffs in the present case, it would ultimately operate to the detriment of sound environmental management.”
“We have raised these arguments with limited success since the mid 1990’s, and it is reassuring to see the Court has ultimately agreed with our analysis,” noted Paul Turcke, the Boise, Idaho lawyer acting as lead counsel for the OHV groups. “This case was never about limiting legitimate review of formal agency decisions, but will clarify that disgruntled and well-funded special interest groups cannot interfere with the ongoing administrative process simply by claiming the agency is failing to act,” Turcke concluded. There are numerous other cases at various levels of the federal court system that could be affected by this ruling including several where snowmobiling in WSAs has been challenged.
In October of 1999, Rainer Huck, president of the Utah Shared Access Alliance (USA-ALL) contacted BRC with advance word that SUWA was filing a very large lawsuit against the BLM. Among other things, SUWA demanded the court ban all vehicle use on nearly 10 million acres! The national significance of the lawsuit was immediately apparent. We had to move to intervene fast in order to prevent an out of court, â€œsweet heartâ€ settlement.
In the Utah District Court, BRC and USA-ALL argued SUWAâ€™s claims are really about the sufficiency of BLMâ€™s management of OHV use, and represents a â€œmanagement through litigationâ€ approach in an attempt to force the BLM into SUWAâ€™s preferred management option, which is to close large areas to vehicle access. We also argued that effective solutions to management challenges require a balance of resource needs and local human interests. This balance is best reached when the BLM involves all public land visitors in its decisions.
Responsible recreational use, even the OHV use occurring inside Wilderness Study Areas, is properly occurring through coordination and collaboration with states, counties and OHV user groups. The BLM noted that while there may be some illegal OHV use occurring, they refuted SUWAâ€™s allegations about the overall damage OHV use is causing. The areas have been the subject of extensive analysis and management planning by BLM to manage these areas responsibly.
The national significance of BRCâ€™s role in this case and the arguments can not be overstated. The legal precedent SUWA sought in this case would apply to all federal agencies and all motorized recreation. If SUWA and their litigation partners had prevailed, the management activities of all federal agencies, not only the BLM, would be hostage to fringe groups of all manner and sort. It certainly would have paralyzed federal land management allowing anti-access groups to further force their agenda on land managers.
Everyone at BRC and USA-ALL is very proud of this victory. The point we wish to emphasize, however, is how much BRC appreciates and values our members and supporters. Without your grass-roots support, these federal judges would not hear any other perspective besides that of SUWAâ€™s. Because of your involvement, these judges heard from the people who actually use the areas these anti-access groups want to close.
In conclusion, allow me to express our sincere thanks to all who have faithfully and generously supported BlueRibbon. SnowTech readers who aren’t already members can contact BRC at our toll free number (800)257-3742 or check us out on the web at www.sharetrails.org.