Hells Canyon Preservation Council v. U.S. Forest Service

Decision Date05 April 2005
Docket NumberNo. 03-35579.,03-35579.
Citation403 F.3d 683
PartiesHELLS CANYON PRESERVATION COUNCIL, an Oregon non-profit corporation, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. UNITED STATES FOREST SERVICE, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

William H. Sherlock, Hutchinson, Cox, Coons, DuPriest, Orr & Sherlock, P.C., Eugene, Oregon, and Brett Brownscombe, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, La Grande, OR, for the plaintiff-appellant.

Michael W. Mosman, United States Attorney, and Jeffrey K. Handy, Assistant United States Attorney, District of Oregon, Portland, Oregon, Thomas L. Sansonetti, Assistant Attorney General, and James Kilborn, Todd S. Aagard, Clay Samford, and Katherine W. Hazard, Environmental & Natural Resources Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for the defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Oregon; Helen J. Frye, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-02-01138-FR.

Before REINHARDT, BERZON, and BYBEE, Circuit Judges.

BERZON, Circuit Judge.

When a party withdraws one of its claims before the trial court enters judgment and the action is subsequently dismissed on the merits, does the trial court's failure to indicate that the withdrawn claim was dismissed without prejudice necessarily render its decision a "final judgment on the merits" as to that claim? Because we answer this question in the negative, we reverse the district court's dismissal of this suit on res judicata grounds and remand for further proceedings.


The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area (HCNRA), located on Oregon's border with Idaho, was established by Congress in 1975 pursuant to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Act, Pub.L. No. 94-199, 89 Stat. 1117 (1975), 16 U.S.C. §§ 460gg et seq. The HCNRA includes the "Hells Canyon Wilderness," which is defined as the area "depicted on the map entitled `Hells Canyon National Recreation Area' dated May 1978,1 which shall be on file and available for public inspection in the officer of the Chief, Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture." 16 U.S.C. § 460gg(b). The Hells Canyon Wilderness is governed by the HCNRA Act or the Wilderness Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1131-36, whichever is more restrictive. See 16 U.S.C. § 460gg-1(b). One of the Wilderness Act's restrictions bars the use of motorized vehicles within designated wilderness areas "except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area." Id. § 1133(c).

At issue in this case is the Lord Flat Trail, a fifteen-mile man-made motorized path on the rim of Hells Canyon. The Trail was initially created in 1960 as a defense against a fire. Since that time, motorized use of the Trail has steadily increased.

In 1989, the U.S. Forest Service discovered that a 1.5-mile stretch of the Lord Flat Trail was within the Hells Canyon Wilderness. After temporarily banning motorized vehicle use on the Trail to avoid violating the Wilderness Act, the Forest Service decided in 1992 to relocate that part of the Trail within the Wilderness. After the relocation, Hells Canyon Preservation Council ("HCPC"), the plaintiff-appellant here, brought suit, alleging that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321 et seq., by failing to file an environmental impact statement when it relocated the 1.5 mile stretch of the Trail. HCPC also maintained that, even after the relocation, other parts of the Trail remained within the Hells Canyon Wilderness, and that, consequently, motorized vehicle use of the Trail continued to violate the Wilderness Act. See Hells Canyon Pres. Council v. U.S. Forest Serv., 883 F.Supp. 534, 535 (D.Or.1995) ("HCPC I").

HCPC's Wilderness Act claim in HCPC I rested on a "Forest Service transportation system map" indicating a half-mile area where the Lord Flat Trail appeared to cross the Wilderness boundary. In response to HCPC's summary judgment motion, the Forest Service responded that the map upon which HCPC relied was "incorrect." In other words, HCPC's 1994 Wilderness Act claim was premised on a Forest Service map that the Forest Service asserted was inaccurate. During oral argument before the district court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, HCPC, taking into account the Forest Service's representation, voluntarily abandoned its Wilderness Act claim. Accordingly, the district court, after it rejected HCPC's NEPA claim on the merits, dismissed the cross-motions for summary judgment on the Wilderness Act claim as "moot." See id. at 539.

It was not until 1997 that HCPC specifically documented those locations where the Trail crossed the hydrologic divide. The divide is, according to HCPC's interpretation of the HCNRA Act, the Wilderness boundary. In response to that discovery, and after a series of exchanges with the Forest Service over the existence and location of the "May 1978" map referred to in the Act, HCPC brought this suit in 2002, alleging violations of the HCNRA Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 706. Specifically, HCPC alleged in its complaint that (1) the Service violated the HCNRA Act by failing to produce or otherwise provide the 1978 map required by the Act to be on file in the Forest Service Chief's office; (2) portions of the Lord Flat Trail remain in the Hells Canyon Wilderness, and motorized vehicle use on the trail therefore violates the Wilderness Act; and (3) the Service's current definition of the western Wilderness boundary as following the rim of the Canyon rather than the hydrologic divide is arbitrary and capricious in violation of the APA.

In an unpublished opinion, the district court dismissed the suit, finding each of HCPC's claims barred by res judicata. Specifically, the court held that all of HCPC's claims either were or could have been raised in the HCPC I litigation, and that final judgment in that case therefore precluded re-litigation of those claims here. From this ruling, HCPC timely appeals.


We review the district court's dismissal on res judicata grounds de novo. Stewart v. U.S. Bancorp, 297 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir.2002). As we recently explained, "[t]he doctrine of res judicata provides that a final judgment on the merits bars further claims by parties or their privies based on the same cause of action, and is central to the purpose for which civil courts have been established, the conclusive resolution of disputes within their jurisdiction." Headwaters Inc. v. U.S. Forest Serv., 399 F.3d 1047, 1051-52 (9th Cir.2005) (internal quotation marks omitted).2 "The elements necessary to establish res judicata are: '(1) an identity of claims, (2) a final judgment on the merits, and (3) privity between parties.'" Id. at 1052(quoting Tahoe-Sierra Pres. Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Reg'l Planning Agency, 322 F.3d 1064, 1077 (9th Cir.2003)). As the parties are identical, the only issues here are whether there is "an identity of claims" with, and "a final judgment on the merits" in, HCPC I.


The district court in this case concluded that HCPC's Wilderness Act claim reached a final judgment on the merits of the action in HCPC I. It is certainly true that there was a final judgment on the merits of the action in HCPC I, as the district court granted the government's motion for summary judgment on HCPC's NEPA claim. See HCPC I, 883 F.Supp. at 539; see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). But res judicata doctrine focuses on an identity of claims, specifying that "a valid final adjudication of a claim precludes a second action on that claim or any part of it." Baker ex rel. Thomas v. Gen. Motors Corp., 522 U.S. 222, 233 n. 5, 118 S.Ct. 657, 139 L.Ed.2d 580 (1998) (emphasis added). That is to say, the "final judgment" prong of the res judicata test is claim-specific. With that caveat in mind, we turn to the somewhat thorny question whether the Wilderness Act claim in HCPC I was included in the "final judgment on the merits" rendered by the district court.

"[F]inal judgment on the merits" is synonymous with "dismissal with prejudice." See, e.g., Stewart, 297 F.3d at 956; see also Semtek Int'l Inc. v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 531 U.S. 497, 505-06, 121 S.Ct. 1021, 149 L.Ed.2d 32 (2001). HCPC I, however, is silent as to whether HCPC's Wilderness Act claim was dismissed by the court at all. In full, the relevant passage of the opinion in HCPC I provides as follows:

In its complaint, plaintiff alleged that another portion of Lord Flat Road is located illegally within the wilderness area and must be closed. At the hearing on the parties' motions for summary judgment, plaintiff withdrew that claim. Accordingly, defendant's and plaintiff's motions for summary judgment on that claim are MOOT.

883 F.Supp. at 539. The Forest Service also emphasizes the language of the judgment in HCPC I. That judgment, however, provided only that "this action is dismissed," (emphasis added), without specifying which claims were still part of the action when it was dismissed.

The Forest Service argues that HCPC I's silence is given meaning by Rule 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides in pertinent part that:

Unless the court in its order for dismissal otherwise specifies, a dismissal under this subdivision and any dismissal not provided for in this rule, other than a dismissal for lack of jurisdiction, for improper venue, or for failure to join a party under Rule 19, operates as an adjudication upon the merits.3

HCPC, in contrast, urges us to interpret the district court's silence by reference to Rule 41(a)(2), which allows for voluntary dismissals of actions with judicial consent, and provides that "[u]nless otherwise specified in the order [of dismissal], a dismissal under this paragraph is without prejudice."

Because we are reviewing the preclusive effect of the district court's decision in HCPC I, we must...

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