Home » Case Summaries » 2015 » Pit River Tribe v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 793 F.3d 1147 (9th Cir. 2015)


Pit River Tribe v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 793 F.3d 1147 (9th Cir. 2015)


In this case, the Pit River Tribe and various environmental organizations[1] (collectively, Pit River) brought suit against the United States Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California. Pit River argued that the BLM’s decision to continue 26 geothermal leases violated the Geothermal Steam Act (GSA),[2] the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),[3] the National Historic Preservation Act (NHSPA),[4] and the federal government’s fiduciary trust obligation to Indian tribes, which required consulting with affected tribes. The district court dismissed Pit River’s claims and found for the BLM on the pleadings. The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded.

The GSA authorizes the BLM to issue leases for a term of ten years, to promote the development of geothermal steam on federal land and in national forests.[5] Under GSA § 1005(a), the BLM must continue leases that, after the initial ten-year lease period, are producing geothermal steam in commercial quantities.[6] If a lease is not producing commercial quantities of geothermal steam, the BLM may extend the lease for up to five years under GSA § 1005(g).[7] This latter decision is discretionary, and requires the BLM to conduct NEPA and NHPA analyses prior to granting extensions.[8]

Between 122 and 126, the BLM entered into an agreement (Unit Agreement) for developing and operating the Glass Mountain Area, which included granting 26 initial leases that were at issue in this case. The leases were located in the Medicine Lake Highlands, which in turn formed part of the Glass Mountain Unit (Unit) established by the BLM to manage geothermal leases. In 130, the BLM’s California office agreed to extend 23 unproven leases[9] held by one leaseholder. In 131, the same office agreed to continue one of those 23 leases that was now producing commercial quantities of geothermal steam. In 132, the office extended two additional leases owned by the same party.

In 138, based on requests from the leaseholder, the BLM retroactively vacated and revoked all 25 extensions it had granted to the unproven leases and simultaneously granted 40-year continuations to those same leases, even though none of those leases was producing commercial quantities of geothermal steam. The BLM claimed that both the GSA and the Unit Agreement governing leases in the Unit obligated the BLM to continue all 26 leases. In doing so, the BLM did not explain why its interpretation of the GSA and the Unit Agreement changed to require the BLM to continue leases it previously determined could only be extended.

In 144, Pit River challenged the BLM’s decisions to continue the unproven leases. The district court held that Pit River lacked prudential standing under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)[10] to bring its GSA claims because the claims were not within § 1005(a)’s “zone of interest.”[11] The district court did not consider whether Pit River raised a claim under § 1005(g). The district court then dismissed Pit River’s NEPA, NHSA, and fiduciary claims, finding that the BLM had acted pursuant to a nondiscretionary duty under § 1005(a), and that additional statutory analyses would have therefore been superfluous.

The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded. Pit River relied on the APA to challenge the BLM’s decision to vacate the lease extensions and simultaneously issue lease continuations for those same leases. The BLM agreed that Pit River had Article III[12] standing, but argued that Pit River’s claims should fail because the claims did not fall within the GSA’s relevant zone of interest as required by the APA.[13] To satisfy the zone of interest test, the complainant must seek to protect an interest arguably within the protective scope of the statute under which the claim arises.[14] In cases where the plaintiff is not itself the subject of the contested agency action, courts should find that the asserted interest is outside of the relevant statute’s zone of interest if the interest is so marginally related to the statute, or so clearly inconsistent with the statute’s implicit purposes, that it is unreasonable to assume that Congress intended to allow for such claims.[15] Whether a party’s claims fall within the relevant zone of interest is properly determined using traditional tools of statutory interpretation to assess whether the statute encompasses the claim, and is therefore not a prudential standing issue.[16]

Relying on a recent decision involving standing analysis,[17] the Ninth Circuit first rejected the district court’s prudential standing analysis of Pit River’s claims. The Ninth Circuit then determined under which sections of the GSA Pit River’s claims arose. The district court had concluded that Pit River’s claims arose only under § 1005(a) of the GSA because Pit River challenged the BLM’s decision to issue lease continuations. However, upon review of Pit River’s complaint, as well as the transcript from the hearing on the parties’ cross-motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Ninth Circuit determined that Pit River raised § 1005(a) claims in response to the BLM’s 138 decision to issue lease-continuations, and § 1005(g) claims in response to the BLM’s simultaneous decision to reverse and vacate its earlier decision to only extend those same leases.

Regarding the zone of interest test, the Ninth Circuit first noted that Bennett v. Spear[18]requires the zone of interest analysis to be based on the particular provision of the law the plaintiff relies on, and not the overall purpose of the Act.[19] The Medicine Lake Highlands are part of the Pit River Tribe’s ancestral territory, and have ongoing cultural and religious significance for the Tribe. The physical, environmental, and aesthetic integrity of the Highlands are therefore of interest to the Tribe. Further, the geothermal leases may have an adverse impact on that integrity. The BLM’s failure to conduct § 1005(g) analyses thus impacted tangible Tribe interests. As a result, the Ninth Circuit held that Pit River’s § 1005(g) claim was within that section’s zone of interest as the claim involved interests protected by § 1005(g).

Pit River additionally argued that it was entitled to judgment on the merits of its GSA claims, including the assertion that the BLM continued a block of leases within the Unit when the BLM should have considered whether extensions were appropriate on a lease-by-lease basis. The Ninth Circuit remanded the question of the BLM’s compliance with the GSA, but declined to direct the district court to enter judgment in Pit River’s favor. Instead, the Ninth Circuit explained that determining whether the BLM violated the GSA would require the district court to undertake a thorough factual analysis before resolving the claims on the merits. The Ninth Circuit also noted that the BLM’s answer to Pit River’s pleadings raised both issues of fact and affirmative defenses, making judgment based solely on Pit River’s pleadings inappropriate.[20]

Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit determined that the district court erred in granting the BLM judgment on the pleadings on Pit River’s NEPA, NHPA, and fiduciary duty claims. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court that § 1005(a) conferred a nondiscretionary duty on the BLM to continue appropriate leases without considering environmental factors. However, because the Ninth Circuit held that Pit River raised claims under § 1005(g), which, if successful on remand, would require BLM to comply with NEPA and NHPA and to consult with affected tribes prior to granting lease extensions, the BLM’s failure to perform such analyses precluded judgment on the pleadings in its favor.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Plaintiff-appellants included the Native Coalition for Medicine Lake Highlands Defense; Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center; Save Medicine Lake Coalition; and Medicine Lake Citizens for Quality Environment.
  2. Geothermal Stream Act of 110, 30 U.S.C. §§ 1001–1028 (2012).
  3. National Environmental Policy Act of 109, 42 U.S.C. § 4321–4370h (2012).
  4. National Historic Preservation Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 470–470x-6 (2012).
  5. 30 U.S.C. § 1005(a), (g) (2012).
  6. Id. § 1005(a).
  7. Id. § 1005(g).
  8. Id. § 1005(a), (g).
  9. Unproven leases are those not producing or utilizing geothermal stream in commercial quantities.
  10. Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 702 (2012) (“[A] person suffering legal wrong because of agency action, or adversely affected or aggrieved by agency action within the meaning of a relevant statute, is entitled to judicial review thereof.”).
  11. Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1377, 1389 (2014).
  12. U.S. Const. art. III, § 2.
  13. See Ass’n of Data Processing Serv. Orgs. v. Camp, 397 U.S. 150, 153 (110) (holding that the plaintiff’s asserted interest must be “arguably within the [statute’s] zone of interest to be protected or regulated by the statute.”).
  14. Id.
  15. Clarke v. Sec. Indus. Ass’n, 479 U.S. 388, 399 (127).
  16. Lexmark Int’l, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1377, 1387 (2014) (rejecting the “prudential standing” label even though the substance of the test remained largely the same).
  17. Id. at 1387–88.
  18. 520 U.S. 154 (137).
  19. Id. at 175–76.
  20. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).
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