Supreme Court Rejects Wilderness Protection Suit

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 15, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a bid by conservation groups to sue the Interior Department for failing to protect public lands from damage caused by off-road vehicle use.

The unanimous ruling Monday overturns a federal appeals court decision and is a blow to environmentalists, who believe the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is ignoring a Congressional mandate to safeguard public lands from off-road vehicle abuse.

Conservation groups, led by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), filed suit in 1999 because the BLM failed to protect some two million acres within several Utah Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) from off-road vehicle use.

Wilderness Study Areas are lands that meet wilderness characteristics and are identified as such by the Interior Department, which is then required by law to protect these lands as wilderness until Congress determines otherwise.

Such a designation prohibits development and the use of motorized off-road vehicles. offroad

Off-road vehicles can wreak havoc on fragile desert ecosystems. (Photo by courtesy SUWA)
The conservation groups contend that the Bureau of Land Management is mandated by the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) to protect these lands as wilderness until Congress determines otherwise.

The 1946 law is the statute under which federal agencies create rules and regulations to implement and enforce Congressional acts.

A federal judge rejected the claim, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance argument that the Administrative Procedures Act allows a court to compel the BLM to act to safeguard Wilderness Study Areas from off-road vehicle use.

The Supreme Court determined the Administrative Procedures Act does not authorize federal courts to consider challenges of agency inactions - only agency actions.

A claim under the Administrative Procedures Act "can proceed only when a plaintiff asserts that an agency failed to take a discrete agency action that it is required to take," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court in a 20 page ruling.

Scalia noted that off-road vehicle use on federal land has "negative environmental consequences including soil disruption and compaction, harassment of animals, and annoyance of wilderness lovers."

But the court determined that the BLM's obligation to protect Wilderness Study Areas affords the agency broad discretion on how it achieves that goal and does not clarify how it should balance "sharply inconsistent uses."

"The prospect of pervasive oversight by federal courts over the manner and pace of agency compliance with such congressional directives is not contemplated by the APA," Scalia wrote.

Attorneys general from 14 states supported conservationists in the case, which was appealed to the Supreme Court by the Bush administration.

Conservationists are dismayed by the decision, which they say will make it more difficult for the public to force the federal government to protect public lands from off-road vehicle use and other harmful activities. offroad

Off-road vehicle use has more than doubled in the past two decades - some 42 million Americans are estimated to participate in off-road travel each year. (Photo by courtesy SUWA)
"This decision implies that our wild lands can be held hostage in infinite limbo while destruction and degradation go unstopped and uncorrected," said Mike Matz, executive director of Campaign for America's Wilderness. "This is tantamount to watching a car accident, but just standing on the curb and not taking action to help the victims."

The case was considered of utmost importance by many conservationists, in particular because the Bush administration has pressed ahead with broad policy changes that alter how the BLM protects and manages the more than 260 million acres under its authority.

An April 2003 settlement with the state of Utah and guidelines announced last fall to implement that settlement effectively barred BLM land managers from designating additional lands as Wilderness Study Areas and prohibited the agency from allocating lands for wilderness protection.

That settlement is being challenged in federal court by environmentalists, who contend the administration is keen to put energy development and off-road vehicle use on public lands above wilderness protection.

In a statement regarding Monday's ruling, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance noted that the decision "does leave other avenues open to us as we continue to pursue our goal of ensuring that the BLM lives up to its responsibility to protect Utah's magnificent public lands from the scars of off-road vehicle damage."

"We intend to redouble our efforts until this problem is resolved."