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Montana Wilderness Ass'n. v. United States Forest Service



The United States Forest Service (USFS) and a group of intervenors[1] appealed a district court decision in favor of Montana Wilderness Association (Wilderness). Wilderness had brought a case against USFS claiming that it had failed to maintain seven Wilderness Study Areas as required by the Montana Wilderness Study Act (Study Act).[2] The district court determined that it had subject matter jurisdiction under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)[3] and granted summary judgment for Wilderness. Under section 706(2), “arbitrary and capricious” review,[4] the Ninth Circuit found that the district court did not have subject matter jurisdiction and reversed. However, the Ninth Circuit affirmed subject matter jurisdiction under “failure to act” review, section 706(1) of the APA,[5] but reversed the summary judgment and remanded for trial because an issue of material fact remained.

Under the Study Act, passed in 1977, USFS must “administer specific Wilderness Study Areas . . . ‘to maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.'”[6] Wilderness claimed that USFS violated the Study Act by constructing and maintaining motorized vehicle trails in the Wilderness Study Areas and for not preventing an increase in motorized vehicle use since 1977.

The Ninth Circuit first considered Wilderness’s claim under section 706(2) of the APA which “authorizes courts to ‘hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings, and conclusions found to be . . . arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law’ or ‘short of statutory right.'”[7] The court found that first Wilderness had to show that the maintenance of trails was a final agency action to establish subject matter jurisdiction.[8] However, the court decided that trail maintenance was not a final agency action because it did not “‘mark the consummation of [USFS’s] decision making process.'”[9] In particular, the court looked at legislative history that suggested that travel management and forest plans for Wilderness Study Areas were the final agency action and trail maintenance was only “an interim aspect of the planning process” of the plans.[10] Also, the court found that trail maintenance did not fit into any categories of “agency action” under the APA.[11]

The Ninth Circuit next examined whether there was subject matter under section 706(1) of the APA, which “authorizes judicial review to ‘compel agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed.'”[12] USFS relied on the Ninth Circuit’s decision in ONRC Action v. Bureau of Land Management [13] to support the argument that USFS did not have a clear statutory duty under the Study Act and that its duties were discretionary. However, the Ninth Circuit found that the Study Act provided a clear, mandatory duty “to ‘maintain’ wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the Wilderness System.”[14]

Next, USFS argued that section 706(1) review is allowed “‘only where there has been a genuine failure to act'”[15] under the Ninth Circuit’s Ecology Center, Inc. v. United States Forest Service.[16] However, the court found that the record in the case before it showed that USFS did not “perform[] its obligations in an extensive and detailed manner as it did in Ecology Center.[17] In Ecology Center, USFS had a duty to monitor and there was evidence that USFS had acted to comply with that duty. However, the duty in the current case was a “specified goal,” and USFS had not “assess[ed] whether wilderness character and potential had actually been maintained.”[18] It was not enough that some of USFS’s acts were done to address the Study Act. Therefore the court found that there was subject matter jurisdiction under section 706(1) of the APA.

The Ninth Circuit clarified that the “clear statutory duty” was not to “consider the impact of its decisions” on the Wilderness Study Areas, as stated by the district court.[19] Instead the Ninth Circuit found that the duty was “to maintain the wilderness character and potential.”[20] Thus, because the record suggested a genuine issue of fact as to whether USFS maintained the Wilderness Study Areas in such a fashion, the court reversed the district court’s summary judgment, vacated the injunction, and remanded for trial.[21]

[1] Intervenors included Blue Ribbon Coalition, Inc., Montana Snowmobile Association, Montana 4×4 Association, High County Trail Riders Association, Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, Rimrock 4×4, Inc., Montana High Country Tours, Bitterroot Adventures, Sneed’s Cycle and Sled, and Middlefork Property Owners Association. Mont. Wilderness Ass’n. v. United States Forest Serv., 314 F.3d 1146 (9th Cir. 2003).

[2] Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977, Pub. L. No. 95-150, 91 Stat. 1243.

[3] 5 U.S.C. §§ 551-559, 701-706, 1305, 3105, 3344, 4301, 5335, 5372, 7521 (2000).

[4] Id. § 706(2)(A).

[5] Id. § 706(1).

[6] Mont. Wilderness Ass’n., 314 F.3d at 1148 (quoting Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977, 91 Stat. 1243) (emphasis in original).

[7] Id. at 1149 (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A), (C) (2000)).

[8] Id. (citing Ecology Ctr., Inc. v. United States Forest Serv., 192 F.3d 922, 925 (9th Cir. 1999)).

[9] Id. at 1150 (citing Bennett v. Spear, 520 U.S. 154, 177 (1997)).

[10] Id.

[11] The categories of “agency action” include “the whole or a part of an agency rule, order, license, sanction, relief, or the equivalent or denial thereof, or failure to act.” 5 U.S.C. § 551(13) (2000).

[12] Mont. Wilderness Ass’n, 314 F.3d at 1150 (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 706(1) (2000)).

[13] 150 F.3d 1132 (9th Cir. 1998).

[14] Mont. Wilderness Ass’n, 314 F.3d at 1151 (quoting Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977, 91 Stat. 1243).

[15] Id. (quoting Ecology Ctr., Inc. v. United States Forest Serv., 192 F.3d 922, 926 (9th Cir. 1999).

[16] 192 F.3d 922 (9th Cir. 1999).

[17] Mont. Wilderness Ass’n, 314 F.3d at 1151.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 1152.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

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