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Oregon Natural Resources Council v. Thomas



In an attempt to conform Northwest timber sales with federal environmental law, the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) appealed a district court decision which dismissed their challenge to timber sales in southwest Oregon. The sales at issue were within coverage of the Standards and Guidelines for Management of Habitat for Late-Successional and Old-Growth Forest Related Species Within the Range of the Spotted Owl (Option 9). The Ninth Circuit’s opinion in this case effectively extended the Rescissions Act[1] to all old-growth timber sales governed by Option 9, suspending all federal environmental laws on these lands regardless of whether the sales contain salvage timber.

ONRC claimed that the sales would reduce “viable populations of native aquatic and amphibious species” and “degrade . . . aquatic resources” in violation of the National Forest Management Act (NFMA).[2] Plaintiffs also alleged that the sales failed to comply with Option 9, which governs the area in issue. In addition, ONRC argued that the sales were arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA)[3] because the Forest Service failed to obtain necessary information about the environmental effects of the sales.

The Ninth Circuit dismissed these arguments, concluding that section 1611 of the Rescissions Act renders sufficient under the environmental laws “whatever documents and procedures, if any, the agency elects to use for an Option 9 sale.” This reasoning overlooks the ostensible purpose of the Rescissions Act, the salvage provision, and extends the suspension of environmental laws to all Option 9 old-growth forests in the Northwest. Thus, the court dismissed ONRC’s claims under NFMA and Option 9.

Plaintiffs’ alternative argument was that in the absence of federal environmental laws, the sales could be challenged under section 706(2)(a) of the APA as arbitrary and capricious. The court rejected this argument as well, stating that the APA is “merely a vehicle for carrying substantive challenges to court.” Because environmental laws are suspended under the Rescissions Act, there is no independent body of law through which to bring the claim, so the decision to sell the timber was “committed to agency discretion” under section 702(a)(2) of the APA. ONRC argued that this analysis rendered meaningless section 1611(f)(1) of the Rescissions Act, which requires timber sales to be “subject to judicial review.” The Ninth Circuit dismissed this argument by noting that while the sales are exempt from review as to environmental sufficiency, they can be challenged on labor, export, or non-discrimination issues.

[1]Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Additional Disaster Assistance, for Anti-Terrorism Initiatives, for Assistance in the Recovery from the Tragedy that Occurred at Oklahoma City, and Rescissions Act (Emergency Appropriations Act), 1995, Pub. L. No. 104-19, §§ 2001-2002, 109 Stat. 194, 240-47 (1995) (codified at 16 U.S.C. § 1611).

[2]16 U.S.C. § 1604(g)(3) (1994).

[3]5 U.S.C. § 706 (2)(a) (1994).

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