Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Stanislaus Court Decision and "Minimization"

By now, many OHVers, federal agents, and other observers of motorized travel management have likely heard about the most recent federal court decision in Northern California.  This time the court struck down the Stanislaus NF 2009 motorized travel management decision.  Contrary to enviro spin, the court largely upheld the decision against the green’s standard boilerplate NEPA attack. However, the Achilles heel appears to be the agency's failure to articulate the way in which it applied the "minimization criteria" first outlined in a 1972 Executive Order signed by President Nixon.  This "minimization argument" is the anti-access weapon du jour and it has become very powerful.

BRC Alert on Stanislaus NF Court Decision (with link to court decision)

The "minimization criteria" directs federal land managers addressing motorized access to "consider effects...with the objective of minimizing" a variety of factors including damage to soil, watershed, vegetation and other forest resources; harassment of wildlife and significant disruption of wildlife habitats; conflicts between motor vehicle and other uses; and conflicts among different classes of motor vehicle uses.  The "minimization criteria" has been around since 1972 and long received only passing interest, but were included in the 2005 Forest Service Travel Management Rule.  See, 36 CFR 212.55(b).

The minimization criteria acquired teeth largely through the decision declaring invalid the Salmon Challis NF travel decision.  This decision was issued in 2011, and is published as Idaho Conservation League v. Guzman, 766 F.Supp.2d 1056 (D.Idaho 2011).  In short, that decision rejected the Forest Service effort to characterize the minimization criteria as providing broad guidance ("consider with objective of minimizing") and interpreted the language as requiring the agency to show, in its NEPA analysis, how it applied the minimization factors in selecting from decision options for specific routes.  There have been several more decisions that have followed similar reasoning.  The decisions to this point have only come from federal district courts, but several appeals from them are pending before the 9th Circuit and it is likely the Court of Appeals will hear at least one of those cases sometime in 2013.

The approaches taken by individual Forest Service units to minimization (and other issues) vary somewhat, but the bottom line is that minimization has been addressed in many Forests under a template that is consistently being found deficient in the eyes of the courts.  And there can be a 3 to 5 year time lag between the time the agency conducts its analysis and completion of judicial review.  So the agency has effectively been trapped- it took a similar approach to minimization in the post-2005 rash of travel decisions, and has just recently learned that many of those decisions were apparently built from a flawed decision-making template.  So in a forest like the Stanislaus we have just learned this week that the analysis completed in 2009 was inadequate, based largely on the reasoning of a 2011 court decision.


HQ does not feel the latest round of anti-agency minimization decisions will improve agency analysis or on-the-ground management.  We constantly find ourselves asking, how much can our society reasonably demand from land managers who spend years and millions of dollars on decisions that all but universally have to be redone?  Anti-access advocates are driven by complex forces, but we are confident a true desire to carry out President Nixon's vision is far down that list.  Instead they are prioritizing the claim(s) that will best serve them in a never-ending effort to challenge any balance struck by the agency in a system that rewards them handsomely for producing even a flesh wound in the effort.   But we would be foolish to ignore the trend.  As in all aspects of agency planning, we need to work with the agencies to ensure that minimization is properly considered and eliminated as an excuse to second guess agency decisions necessary to ongoing authorization of motorized access.

As Wilderness advocates in the Stanislaus case argue for the closure of OHV routes in roadless areas… it is important to remember that in a previous case… preservationist interests “defended” motorized access to roadless areas in their strong opposition to the intervention of access-advocacy interests in California -- Lockyer et al. v. U.S.D.A., Case No. 05-3508 (N.D.Cal.). That case, consolidated with a similar action brought by private groups led by The Wilderness Society (“TWS”) sought to challenge the 2005 State Petitions Rule. The California Association of 4 Wheel Drive Clubs, United Four Wheel Drive Associations, American Council of Snowmobile Associations and BlueRibbon Coalition moved to intervene. The preservationist plaintiffs opposed, arguing “the interests that the Off-Road Vehicle Groups assert in motorized recreation in roadless areas are not at stake in this action.” Plaintiffs’ Opposition to Motion to Intervene (Doc. No. 79) at 7 Case Nos. 05-3508 and 05-4038 (N.D.Cal.)(March 7, 2006) In reaching this conclusion, the TWS plaintiffs summarized language from the Rule and its associated planning documents, stating “[i]n sum, even if the Roadless Rule is reinstated by this Court as plaintiffs request, it will not prohibit a single person’s off-road vehicle use or close a single off-road vehicle trail as alleged by the Off-Road Vehicle Groups’ declarants.” Id. at 5. The TWS surreply clarifies and extends on these conclusions, again saying the “Roadless Rule does not close any existing vehicular routes (ORV or otherwise) in any National Forest roadless areas.” Plaintiffs’ Surreply in Opposition to Intervention (Doc. No. 100) at 1, Case Nos. 05-3508 and 05-4038 (N.D.Cal.)(March 24, 2006) . That document goes on to address specific routes of concern identified by BlueRibbon declarant Don Amador and says “[a]s to the two routes Mr. Amador might hypothetically use for ORV recreation … neither route is more than 50 inches wide, and therefore the Roadless Rule would not even apply to them.” Id. at 2.

HQ Blog with more "Roadless" Discussion including citation above

Certainly, 2013 will be filled with a number of challenges for OHV recreation… with the ongoing legal battles being front and center in a number of venues.  Stay tuned, it is going to get bumpy this year.

Thanks for your support! 

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