D.C. Court Upholds Forest Service's 2012 Planning Rule

In a decision issued April 28, 2015, a U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed an action challenging the U.S. Forest Service's (Service) 2012 National Forest Planning Rule (Planning Rule).  The Service is responsible for managing all federally owned forest and range lands, as well as the species that reside on those lands, pursuant to a three-tiered system established by the Organic Administration Act (OAA), the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act (MUSYA), and the National Forest Management Act (NFMA).  This three-tier system consists of: (1) a nationwide Planning Rule, (2) specific forest management plans, and (3) project-level decisions. The Planning Rule establishes the framework for the forest management plans.  As of 2012, approximately 32% of species listed under the Endangered Species Act were known to use or occur on national forest lands, making the Planning Rule and the management plans developed thereunder important for listed species.  (History of Endangered and Threatened Species on National Forest System Lands (pdf).)

In the case, plaintiffs, a coalition of timber, ranching, and recreation interests, alleged that the Planning Rule violated the OAA, MUSYA, and NFMA by prioritizing "ecosystem services" and "ecological sustainability" above the other competing uses of national forest lands. Plaintiffs further alleged that the Service violated the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to include certain definitions in the proposed rule that appear in the final version of the Planning Rule. Defendants argued that plaintiffs lacked standing to pursue the lawsuit and that the controversy was not ripe for judicial review.

Ultimately, the D.C. District Court dismissed the lawsuit on standing grounds, finding that plaintiffs failed to establish the three elements of article III standing. Article III standing requires plaintiffs to have a concrete and particularized injury that can be causally linked to defendants' action and can be redressed by an action of the court. Because plaintiffs could not establish a concrete or particularized injury that the Planning Rule would cause to any one of their members, the court reasoned that there was no injury to which the court could provide relief.  Finally, the court also found that the Service's failure to include three definitions in the proposed rule provided for public comment also did not rise to the level of a redressable injury, noting that plaintiffs' generalized fears about these definitions being used to limit timber harvest or to restrict future opportunities to comment on forest management plans fell short of rising to the level of a procedural injury.

Nossaman’s Endangered Species Law & Policy blog focuses on news, events, and policies affecting endangered species issues in California and throughout the United States. Topics include listing and critical habitat decisions, conservation and recovery planning, inter-agency consultation, and related developments in law, policy, and science. We also inform readers about regulatory and legislative developments, as well as key court decisions.

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