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Kettle Range Conservation Group v. United States Bureau of Land Management



Kettle Range Conservation Group and Inland Empire Public Lands Council (Kettle Range) sued the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the District Court of the Eastern District of Washington to prevent the agency from completing a land exchange with defendant-intervenor Clearwater Land Exchange (Clearwater). Kettle Range claimed that BLM had not adequately considered the environmental impacts of the sale under the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).[1] They sought permanent injunctive relief from the district court. Specifically, Kettle Range asked the court to 1) prevent BLM from completing the land exchange until it complied with NEPA, and 2) rescind the contract between BLM and Clearwater pending compliance with NEPA. The district court partially granted and partially denied injunctive relief.

In the Ninth Circuit, Kettle Range sought emergency relief pending an appeal from the district court’s decision. The district court granted plaintiff’s request to prevent BLM from completing the land exchange until it complied with NEPA requirements. The court refused, however, to rescind the contract between BLM and Clearwater pending NEPA compliance, as Kettle Range had requested.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that it could not rescind the contract because Kettle Range had neither joined nor made any attempt to join the private entities to which BLM had transferred the public lands. The private entities were “necessary parties” with respect to the relief sought, and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19(a) requires the “joinder of persons needed for just adjudication.”[2] The Ninth Circuit determined that, under Rule 19, “the parties holding title to the lands were necessary because the district court could not grant complete relief without ‘impair[ing] or imped[ing]’ their interests.”[3]

Kettle Range argued that it could not join the private entities because NEPA did not afford a cause of action against private parties. The Ninth Circuit acknowledged the general prohibition against joining private parties in NEPA actions, but it also recognized an exception to this bar: “Nonfederal defendants may be enjoined if ‘federal and [nonfederal] projects are sufficiently interrelated to constitute a single federal action for NEPA purposes.'”[4] While the court suggested that it was possible that BLM’s action fit this exception, it did not see this issue as dispositive of Kettle Range’s claim. Instead, the court framed the issue in terms of whether or not the district court could have equitably rescinded the contract for the land exchange without the private entities being parties to the action. It held that it could not.

The appellants nevertheless argued that the court should have suspended the usual rules of joinder in this situation pursuant to the “public rights exception.” Courts have applied this exception when “‘litigation . . . transcend[s] the private interests of the litigants and seek[s] to vindicate a public right.'”[5] The Supreme Court has restricted the applicability of this exception to “cases in which the third parties’ interests at issue are not destroyed.”[6] Because title to the land already transferred had vested in the private parties, however, the Ninth Circuit determined that any order that voided the executed portion of the land exchange would destroy the interests of the absent parties. Thus, the court held that this appeal did not fall under the public rights exception, and the usual rules of joinder under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure applied.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit concluded, “at this point it might be impractical to unscramble the eggs.”[7] Evidence suggested that private entities had already harvested timber on at least some of the transferred land. Thus, even if the court were to grant Kettle Range’s requested injunction, there would be no guarantee that the land involved in the exchange would not already be bereft of timber.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Reinhardt, while acknowledging that the district court acted properly in this case, nevertheless expressed his frustration at the practical outcome of these proceedings. “Although the district court held that the government violated NEPA and that it transferred public lands in violation of . . . environmental laws, those lands will now be clearcut . . . by the private purchasers. That is not how our legal system is supposed to work.”[8]

[1] National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321-4370d (1994 & Supp. III 1997).

[2] Fed. R. Civ. P. 19(a).

[3] Kettle Range Conservation Group v. United States Bureau of Land Management, 150 F.3d 1083, 1086 (9th Cir. 1998) (alteration in original) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 19(a)).

[4] Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Fund for Animals v. Lujan, 962 F.2d 1391, 1397 (9th Cir. 1992)).

[5] Id. at 1087 (alteration in original) (quoting Kescoli v. Babbitt, 101 F.3d 1304, 1311 (9th Cir. 1996)).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 1088 (Reinhardt, J., concurring).

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