WASHINGTON — A closely divided Supreme Court on Tuesday limited environmentalists' ability to challenge Forest Service rules in a case that arose from a controversial Sequoia National Forest salvage logging project.
The so-called Burnt Ridge project in the California forest has long since been resolved. The court's 5-4 ruling Tuesday, though, could affect hundreds of other forests nationwide with restrictive guidelines on who has the power to sue.
"The Burnt Ridge project is now off the table," Justice Antonin Scalia noted from the bench Tuesday morning. "The parties settled, the timber sale is not going to happen and the (environmentalists) can no longer claim that they are at risk of injury from it."
The 15,000-member Earth Island Institute had joined others, including the much-smaller Sequoia ForestKeeper, with 100 or so members, to challenge Forest Service plans for logging on Burnt Ridge. The 238-acre region burned during a large forest fire in the summer of 2002.
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Environmentalists sued, and the Forest Service agreed to withdraw the Burnt Ridge project. Even so, a federal judge imposed a nationwide injunction that blocked the Forest Service from applying its exemptions for any small logging project.
In the short term, the court's ruling in Summers v. Earth Island Institute means that the Forest Service again can apply Bush administration exemptions limiting public hearings and appeals on salvage logging projects of fewer than 250 acres and forest-thinning projects of fewer than 1,000 acres.
More generally, the ruling will make it harder for environmentalists — and others — to have the so-called "standing" to sue.
Standing means that someone must have a concrete and particular harm before he can get his day in court. It's a technical but crucial concept, particularly in cases that involve the environment, because it's a threshold question of whether a lawsuit can proceed.
"Broad concerns shared by all citizens, like an interest in 'good government' or in the 'health of the forests,' are not sufficient to establish standing," Scalia noted, writing on behalf of the court's conservative majority.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined in the 12-page majority opinion.
Environmentalists fear that they now will have a much harder time challenging logging projects because they'll have to do so on a case-by-case basis. They'd argued for a more liberal interpretation of standing, persuading a minority of the high court's members.
"A threat of future harm may be realistic even where the plaintiff cannot specify precise times, dates and GPS coordinates," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissent.
Stevens noted that the Forest Service intends to conduct "thousands of further salvage timber sales" in the near future. He said that this logging could be reasonably argued as hurting "the recreational, aesthetic and environmental interests" of Sierra Club members and others.
Scalia and the court's majority, though, dismissed the complaint of Ara Marderosian, the executive director of Sequoia ForestKeeper, in Kernville, Calif., as having been "remedied" by the Forest Service's withdrawal of the Burnt Ridge project. Scalia further reasoned that a claim by another environmentalist, Jim Bensman, wasn't sufficiently tied to a particular forest site.
Bensman of the Midwest environmental group Heartwood had said that he planned to visit national forests, where Forest Service logging policies might hinder his experience.
Scalia wasn't impressed.
"This vague desire to return (to the forest) is insufficient to satisfy the requirement of imminent injury," Scalia said.