Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. U.S. Forest Serv.

Decision Date31 August 2016
Docket NumberCase No. 1:15-CV-00193-EJL
PartiesALLIANCE FOR THE WILD ROCKIES, et al., Plaintiffs, v. UNITED STATES FOREST SERVICE, et al., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Idaho

Pending before the Court in the above-entitled matter are the parties' Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. The matters have been fully briefed and are ripe for the Court's consideration. Having fully reviewed the record, the Court finds that the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented in the briefs and record. Accordingly, in the interest of avoiding further delay, and because the Court conclusively finds that the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument, the Motions shall be decided on the record before this Court without a hearing.

1. The Project

This matter concerns the United States Forest Service's (Forest Service) approval of the Lost Creek-Boulder Creek Restoration Project (LCBC Project or the Project). (FS077765.) The LCBC Project Area encompasses approximately 80,000 acres of National Forest System lands in the western portion of the New Meadows Ranger District of the Payette National Forest (PNF). (FS077784.) The Project Area is located in Boulder Creek, a tributary to the Little Salmon River, and in the headwaters of the Weiser River and the West Fork of the Weiser River. The proposed activities include 40,000 acres of vegetation treatments - comprised of 22,000 acres of commercial treatments, 18,000 acres of non-commercial treatments, and associated actions such as road maintenance and temporary road construction; 45,000 acres of prescribed fire; watershed improvements; and recreation improvements. (FS077785.) The stated purpose of the Project is to move vegetation and subwatersheds toward desired conditions, manage recreation use, and contribute to the economic vitality of the adjacent communities. (FS077797.)

The Project was developed consistent with the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP)1 using a collaborative process between the Payette Forest Coalition (PFC)2 and the Forest Service. (FS078856.) The PFC met regularly for twoyears beginning in 2009 to develop recommendations for the Project. Those recommendations were then used by the Forest Service to formulate the proposed action. In March of 2014, the Forest Service issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the LCBC Project (LCBC FEIS). (FS077765.) The Record of Decision (ROD) was issued in September of 2014 wherein the Forest Service selected Alternative B-modified for implementation. (FS078848, FS078858.)

2. Procedural Background

This action is brought by Plaintiffs, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Idaho Sporting Congress, and Native Ecosystems Council, who have raised claims under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. (APA), alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq. (ESA), National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4331 et seq. (NEPA); and the National Forest Management Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1600 et seq. (NFMA). (Dkt. 25.) Plaintiffs ask the Court to set aside the Project, enjoin its implementation, and award costs and other expenses incurred in bringing the case. The Forest Service responds that its decisions and approval of the Project satisfies the applicable standards and statutory requirements. (Dkt. 27.)3 Adams County and the PFChave intervened as Defendants in this case. (Dkt. 28, 51, 31.)4 The parties have each filed Motions for Summary Judgment that have been fully briefed and are ripe for the Court's consideration. (Dkt. 33, 36, 38.) The Court finds as follows.

1. Summary Judgment

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides, in pertinent part, that the "Court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of "informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the [record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to "go beyond the pleadings" and "designate specific facts" in the record to show a trial is necessary to resolve genuine disputes of material fact. Id. The nonmoving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated if the non-moving party fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element which is essential to the non-moving party's case and upon which the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

"Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). For summary judgment purposes, an issue must be both "material" and "genuine." An issue is "material" if it affects the outcome of the litigation. An issue is "genuine" if it must be established by "sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." Hahn v. Sargent, 523 F.3d 461, 464 (1st Cir. 1975) (quoting First Nat. Bank v. Cities Serv. Co. Inc., 391 U.S. 253, 289 (1968)); see also British Motor. Car Distrb. v. San Francisco Auto. Indus. Welfare Fund, 883 F.2d 371, 374 (9th Cir. 1989). "Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial." Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (citation omitted).

In considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court does not make findings of fact or determine the credibility of witnesses, Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; rather, it must draw all inferences and view all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587-88; Whitman v. Mineta, 541 F.3d 929, 931 (9th Cir. 2008).

2. Administrative Procedure Act

Judicial review of administrative agency decisions is made under the APA. 5 U.S.C. § 702. Such review is based on the administrative record compiled by the agency - not on independent fact-finding by the district court. Camp v. Pitts, 411 U.S. 138, 142 (1973).APA claims may be resolved via summary judgment pursuant to the standard set forth in Rule 56. See Nw. Motorcycle Assn. v. United States Dept. of Agric., 18 F.3d 1468, 1472 (9th Cir. 1994).

The claims in this case raise factual or technical disputes, implicating agency expertise, which are reviewed under the "arbitrary and capricious" standard. See Price Rd. Neighborhood Assn., Inc. v. United States Dept. of Transp., 113 F.3d 1505, 1508 (9th Cir. 1997) (discussing the two standards governing review of agency actions involving NEPA); Alaska Wilderness Rec. & Tour. v. Morrison, 67 F.3d 723 (9th Cir.1995). That standard requires the Court to determine whether the agency action is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with the law." 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A).

"Normally, an agency rule would be arbitrary and capricious if the agency has relied on factors which Congress has not intended it to consider, entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, offered an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise." Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Assn. v. State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983); see also Cascadia Wildlands v. Bureau of Indian Affairs, 801 F.3d 1105, 1110 (9th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted). The scope of review under the "arbitrary and capricious" standard is narrow and a court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the agency. Motor Vehicle, 463 U.S. at 43. Nevertheless, the agency must examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action including a "rational connection between the facts found and the choice made." Id.(citation omitted); see also City of Sausalito v. O'Neill, 386 F.3d 1186, 1206 (9th Cir. 2004) (quoting Selkirk Conservation Alliance v. Forsgren, 336 F.3d 944, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2003)). In reviewing that explanation, the court must "consider whether the decision was based on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment." Id. (citations omitted); see also Marsh v. Or. Nat. Resources Council, 490 U.S. 360, 378 (1989).The court may not overturn an agency decision simply because it disagrees with the decision or with the agency's conclusions about environmental impacts. River Runners for Wilderness v. Martin, 593 F.3d 1064, 1070 (9th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted). The "court may not substitute its judgment for that of the agency concerning the wisdom or prudence of the agency's action." Id. (citation and marks omitted).

When applying this standard, courts grant substantial deference to the decisions and actions of federal agency defendants in adopting and implementing certain agency activities. See Trout Unlimited v. Lohn, 559 F.3d 946, 958 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Nat. Wildlife Fed. v. United States Army Corps of Engrs., 384 F.3d 1163, 1174 (9th Cir. 2004) ("Where scientific and technical expertise is necessarily involved in agency decision-making,... a reviewing court must be highly deferential to the judgment of the agency.")). This deference is particularly appropriate where, as here, the Court is reviewing "issues of fact," "where analysis of the relevant documents requires a high level of technical expertise." City of...

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