Home » Case Summaries » 1996 » Seattle Audubon Society v. Mosley


Seattle Audubon Society v. Mosley



This case consolidated three appeals challenging the decision by the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to approve a plan to manage federal land with spotted owl habitat in the Pacific Northwest. Three environmental groups–Native Forest Council, Forest Conservation Council, and Save the West–appealed the district court’s grant of summary judgment upholding the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Record of Decision for Amendments to Forest Service and BLM Planning Documents Within Range of the Northern Spotted Owl (ROD), adopted April 13, 1994. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.

In April 1993, President Clinton established the Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team (FEMAT) to examine options and make recommendations to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to aid their development of a forest management plan to preserve the habitat of the northern spotted owl on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest. FEMAT analyzed forty-eight possible strategies, narrowed the field to ten alternatives, and assessed each in a single environmental impact statement (EIS) the Forest Service and BLM prepared. The Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior adopted Alternative 9 on April 13, 1994.

The environmental plaintiffs contended that the federal defendants violated NEPA regulations by not considering a reasonable range of alternatives for managing old-growth owl habitat. The Ninth Circuit found that the federal defendants fully evaluated a reasonable range of alternatives before making their final decision. Agencies are not required to consider all possible alternatives, including alternatives unlikely to be implemented or alternatives which are not consistent with its basic policy objectives. Here, the agency did consider a no harvest alternative, but rejected it due to their mandate to manage the forests for multiple uses. Moreover, the federal defendants considered an alternative which would have protected all old-growth timber, which the court considered the sufficient equivalent of a no action alternative.

Plaintiffs contended that the federal defendants failed to comply with the viability regulation of the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) because the selected alternative provides for only an eighty percent likelihood that listed species will continue to be viable after implementation. They argued the resulting twenty percent likelihood of extinction is impermissible under the regulation. The court held the plaintiffs did not support their claim that the defendant’s selected alternative violated the applicable viability standards. The Ninth Circuit, concurring with the district court, said that selection of other alternatives with a higher likelihood of viability would violate NFMA’s mandate to create forest plans which “maintain diversity of plant and animal commentates to meet overall multiple-use objectives.”[1] The defendants did consider viability of populations according to current scientific knowledge. The court concluded the defendants had reasonably interpreted and applied the viability regulations since they made no clear errors of judgment nor did they overlook any relevant information.

The environmental plaintiffs further contended that the district court erred in holding that the federal defendants considered adequately the cumulative environmental impacts associated with their preparation of the EIS and selection of Alternative 9. The court held this argument failed because the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the Ninth Circuit’s long-held position that the Endangered Species Act protects listed species from habitat modification or destruction causing harm. The court concluded it was reasonable for the cumulative impact analysis to assume that nonfederal land would be managed to avoid harm to threatened species. Based on this analysis, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.

[1]36 C.F.R. § 219.27(a)(5) (1996).

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