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Forest Guardians v. Dombeck



Environmental interest groups sued Dombeck, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief for alleged violations by the Forest Service (FS) of the National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA).[1] The plaintiffs argued that the FS violated NFMA by implementing amendments to land and resource management plans (LRMPs) that would apply prospectively only, and therefore would not apply to projects already authorized but still being implemented. The district court granted the FS’s motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs timely appealed, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

NFMA, which guides the management of National Forest lands, directs the Secretary of Agriculture (Secretary) to develop LRMPs for units of the National Forest System in order to coordinate the multiple uses and harvest of various forest resources.[2] In 1996, the FS amended the LRMPs for the Southwestern Region forests, providing new standards and guidelines for managing the Mexican spotted owl, northern goshawk, old growth, and grazing activities on national forest lands. Included in the new LRMPs were added restrictions on logging of old-growth forests and livestock grazing. In the Record of Decision for Amendment of Forest Plans (ROD) in the Southwestern forests, the FS specified that the 1996 Plan Amendments would apply only to “‘[n]ew permits, new contracts, and other new instruments for the use and occupancy of’ national forest lands” in the region.[3] The Forest Guardians later filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against the FS in the Arizona District Court, alleging that the FS violated NFMA because the ROD stated that decisions made prior to the 1996 Plan Amendments, many of which were still being implemented, were not required to conform to the new standards and guidelines. Plaintiffs sought to enjoin implementation of all forest management activities not consistent with the new amendments, and to enjoin all future authorizations for the use and occupancy of national forest lands not consistent with the new plan. The district court held that the FS’s implementation of the 1996 Plan Amendments did not violate NFMA, and granted summary judgment for the FS. On appeal, the Forest Guardians again argued that the FS’s decision to implement the 1996 Forest Plan Amendments prospectively but not retroactively violated NFMA. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, and affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the FS.

The Ninth Circuit focused on the Chevron analysis[4] of an agency’s interpretation of statutory provisions. The court concluded that Congress had clearly spoken on the issue in question, and therefore the court “must give force to its expressed intent”[5] that the Secretary have discretion in amending existing forest plans and deciding how to implement amendments. In reaching that holding, the court examined section 1604(f)(4) of NFMA, which states that LRMPs developed in accordance with the act “shall be amended in any manner whatsoever after final adoption after public notice . . . .”[6] In the court’s view, this broad grant of authority included the ability to implement the 1996 Plan Amendments prospectively only. The Ninth Circuit buttressed its finding with the legal principle that “absent explicit legislative intent to the contrary, ‘congressional enactments and administrative rules will not be construed to have retroactive effects unless their language requires this result.'”[7] Because the language of section 1604(i) did not explicitly mandate the retroactive application of all amendments, and in fact expressly precludes retroactive applications of amendments where they would impair existing rights,[8] which the court held would be the case here, applying the amendment retroactively would be inappropriate. Therefore, the court held that prior existing agreements were “grandfathered” into the new forest plans, leaving the new standards applicable only to future agreements, and making the old standards applicable to prior agreements. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit held that the FS’s restriction of the 1996 Amendments to new authorization, contracts, and permits was permissible and affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the FS.

[1]16 U.S.C. §§ 1600-1614 (1994).

[2]16 U.S.C. § 1604(a) (1994).

[3]Forest Guardians v. Dombeck, 131 F.3d 1309, 1311 (9th Cir. 1997).

[4]Chevron, U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837 (1984). Under the two-step analytical approach adopted in Chevron, the first step is to determine whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. Id. at 842. The court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. Id. at 842-43. However, if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the analysis moves to step two of the analysis, and the question for the court is whether the agency’s interpretation is based on a permissible construction of the statute. Id. at 843.

[5]Forest Guardians, 131 F.3d at 1312.

[6]42 U.S.C. § 1604(f)(4) (1994).

[7]Forest Guardians, 131 F.3d at 1313 (quoting Chenault v. United States Postal Serv., 37 F.3d 535, 537 (9th Cir. 1994)).

[8]NFMA states that “[a]ny revision in present or future permits, contracts, and other instruments . . . shall be subject to valid existing rights.” 16 U.S.C. § 1604(i) (1994). The legislative history of this provision indicates that it was intended to clarify that the government is not taking any private rights or other interests when amending LRMPs. S. Rep. No. 94-893, at 47-48 (1976) reprinted in 1976 U.S.C.C.A.N. 6662, 6706.

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