High court takes crucial Sierra Nevada case

mdoyle@mcclatchydc.comMarch 25, 2013 

WASHINGTON -- A long-running Sierra Nevada forest planning dispute will be settled by the Supreme Court in what could shape up to be a crucial public lands case.

On Monday, the court agreed to referee the dispute pitting environmentalists with the Portland, Ore.-based Pacific Rivers Council against the U.S. Forest Service over decision-making that dates to the second Bush administration. While the specific case involves 11 Sierra forests, the outcome could shape everything from who gets to file lawsuits to the scope of future environmental studies.

"Definitely, throughout the West, this could have huge impacts on the moving of projects forward," Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the conservative Public Lands Council in Washington, D.C., said in an interview Monday.

One key question confronting the court will be whether environmentalists have the "standing" to sue over a general forest plan, as opposed to a specific project proposal, by virtue of making recreational use of the national forests. To gain standing in federal court, individuals must show they've been injured or face imminent injury.

A second major question is how extensively detailed the Forest Service must be when preparing overarching management plans, such as the one governing the 11 Sierra forests.

"The only role for a court is to insure that the agency has taken a 'hard look' at the environmental consequences of its proposed action," Pacific Rivers Council's attorneys said in a legal brief, adding that "agencies cannot take a 'hard look' unless they have reasonably identified the consequences of their actions."

Underscoring the case's potential significance, the Public Lands Council and the affiliated National Cattlemen's Beef Association secured Supreme Court permission Monday to file a brief opposing the environmental group. Many more briefs, from both sides, are sure to come.

The court's decision to hear the Sierra case, sometime during the 2013 term that starts in October, means that at least four of the court's nine justices agreed to reconsider a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision from last year in which environmentalists prevailed.

In that 2-1 appellate court decision, the 9th Circuit panel concluded that the Forest Service in 2004 failed to study adequately the effect of dramatically revised forest plans on Sierra fish populations.

"The Forest Service provided no analysis despite the fact that the 2004 (plan) allows much more logging, burning, road construction and grazing," Judge William A. Fletcher wrote for the appellate panel.

The planning, and required federal environmental impact statements, cover nearly 11.5 million acres of Forest Service land stretching from Southern California to the California-Oregon border. Taken together, the Sequoia, Inyo, Sierra, Stanislaus, Humboldt-Toiyabe, Eldorado, Tahoe, Plumas, Lassen and Modoc national forests, and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, encompass more than 5 percent of all land managed by the Forest Service nationwide.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or (202) 383-0006.

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