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Idaho Conservation League v. Thomas



The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) and the Wilderness Society brought this action against Jack Ward Thomas, Chief of the United States Forest Service, seeking an injunction preventing the Thunderbolt timber salvage sale, located in the South Fork Salmon River (SFSR) in central Idaho, from proceeding. Reviewing the Forest Service’s record of decision under the arbitrary and capricious standard mandated by the Rescissions Act of 1995,[1] the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Thomas. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed this decision.

Before the Forest Service proposed the Thunderbolt timber salvage sale in 1994, the SFSR had suffered severe erosion and stream sedimentation due to activities such as mining and logging. Consequently, in the late 1980s, the Forest Service, along with several other groups including scientists, timber industry officials, and Indian tribes, developed a set of management guidelines. These guidelines prohibit any new, major, land-disturbing actions until the environmental health of the SFSR improves. In addition, EPA has designated the SFSR as water quality limited and has set Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) to limit sediment discharges into the river.

In 1994, numerous wildfires affected the SFSR drainage, burning over 150,000 acres. The magnitude and extent of these fires were significantly greater than those expected by the Forest Service. In response, the Service proposed the Thunderbolt Wildfire Recovery Project. The Thunderbolt timber salvage sale was part of this plan and was intended to be a means of financing ecosystem restoration and sediment reduction projects.

In March 1995, the Service issued its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). In response, various state and federal agencies opposed the proposed salvage sale. These agencies viewed the environmental risks of the salvage logging as too great to accept the project as a means of financing the restoration projects. Their concern was that the salvage action would generate a tremendous amount of additional sediment in the SFSR watershed, thus contributing to current problems.

The Forest Service responded to each of the agencies’ concerns and then accepted recommendations from its own panel of experts. The Service’s experts also disapproved of the plan and proposed numerous changes. The Service incorporated these changes into the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) which they released in September, 1995. In October, the Service indicated its intent to proceed with the Thunderbolt sale in a Record of Decision (ROD). Fifteen days after the Service advertised the sale, ICL filed its action. Within forty-five days, the district court denied ICL’s motion for summary judgment and instead granted summary judgment in favor of the Forest Service. On appeal, ICL argued that the Thunderbolt sale was arbitrary and capricious because of the overwhelming expert agency opposition and because the sale could not meet its goal of raising money for restoration projects.

The Rescission Act allows only limited judicial review, and the Forest Service’s actions are judged by the arbitrary and capricious standard. First, the court found that even though there were numerous opposing views from the commenting agencies, the Service was allowed to disagree and rely only on its own expert panel. Second, because the 1994 wildfires resulted in a changed condition not anticipated when the forest plans were completed, the Service’s decision to alter its management plan was not arbitrary and capricious. Third, the court was convinced by the Service’s evidence that the revenues from the Salvage Sale and the financing evidenced by the ROD would enable the Service to fund the restoration projects. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court that the Forest Service did not act arbitrarily and capriciously.

ICL also argued that, because the Secretary of Agriculture had no role in deciding whether to proceed with the sale, the Forest Service violated section 2001(c)(1)(A) of the Rescissions Act.[2] The Ninth Circuit responded by pointing out that it had previously held section 2001(c)(1)(A) does not require the Secretary of Agriculture to personally authorize salvage timber sales. Thus, the plaintiff’s second argument failed.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court did not abuse its discretion by excluding from consideration certain extra-record materials, including a declaration by ICL’s expert, Cindy Williams, because they were not sent or released to the Forest Service. Thus, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Thomas.

[1] 16 U.S.C. § 1611 (1994 & Supp. 1995).

[2] Id. § 1611(c)(1)(A).

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