Mass. Lobstermen's Ass'n v. Ross

Decision Date05 October 2018
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 17-406 (JEB)
Parties MASSACHUSETTS LOBSTERMEN'S ASSOCIATION, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Wilbur J. ROSS, Jr., et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Jonathan Wood, Todd F. Gaziano, Pacific Legal Foundation, Arlington, VA, Joshua P. Thompson, Damien M. Schiff, Johanna B. Talcott, Pacific Legal Foundation, Sacramento, CA, for Plaintiffs.

Davene Dashawn Walker, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Defendants.

Katherine K. Desormeau, Ian Fein, Bradford H. Sewell, Jacqueline Iwata, and Michael E. Wall, San Francisco, CA, for Defendant-Intervenor Natural Resources Defense Council

Peter Shelley, Boston, MA, for Defendant-Intervenor Conservation Law Foundation

Roger M. Fleming, Washington, DC, for Defendant-Intervenors Center for Biological Diversity and R. Zack Klyver


JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District JudgeIn 1905, Teddy Roosevelt wrote that "there can be nothing in the world more beautiful" than the natural wonders of the United States, and "our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children's children forever." Outdoor Pastimes of An American Hunter at 317 (1905). Roosevelt was talking, of course, about those legendary sites that most Americans know: Yosemite Valley, the Canyon of Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.

But he might have been talking about a less well-known — and only more recently appreciated — natural wonder: the Canyons and Seamounts of the Northwestern Atlantic Ocean. Like the landmarks the twenty-sixth President had in mind, the Canyons and Seamounts are a "region of great abundance and diversity as well as stark geographic relief." ECF No. 1 (Compl.), Exh. 4 (Proclamation of Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument) at 1. Dating back 100 million years — much older than Yosemite and Yellowstone — they are home to "vulnerable ecological communities" and "vibrant ecosystems." Id. at 1–2. And, as was true of the hallowed grounds on which Roosevelt waxed poetic, "[m]uch remains to be discovered about these unique, isolated environments." Id. at 4.

More than a century after Roosevelt had left office, but in reliance on a conservation statute passed during that time, President Barack Obama proclaimed the Canyons and Seamounts a National Monument. Motivated by the area's "unique ecological resources that have long been the subject of scientific interest," the President sought to protect it for future use and study. Id. at 1.

The question before the Court in this case is whether he had the power do so. More specifically, does the Antiquities Act give the President the authority to designate this monument? Plaintiffs are various commercial-fishing associations who argue that it does not for three reasons: first, because the submerged lands of the Canyons and Seamounts are not "lands" under the Antiquities Act; second, because the federal government does not "control" the lands on which the Canyons and Seamounts lie; and third, because the amount of land reserved as part of the Monument is not the smallest compatible with its management. The Government, backed by intervening conservation organizations and two groups of law professor amici , disagrees entirely.

The Court concludes that, just as President Roosevelt had the authority to establish the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908, see Cameron v. United States, 252 U.S. 450, 40 S.Ct. 410, 64 L.Ed. 659 (1920), so President Obama could establish the Canyons and Seamounts Monument in 2016. It therefore grants Defendants' Motion to Dismiss.

I. Background

The Court begins with a brief discussion of the Antiquities Act and the establishment of the Monument before explaining the procedural history of the case.

A. The Antiquities Act

During the nascency of America's efforts to protect her cultural and scientific heritage, Congress passed the Antiquities Act of 1906. See Pub. L. No. 59–209, 34 Stat. 225 (codified at 54 U.S.C. § 320301 et seq. ). Proposed initially to address the loss of archaeological artifacts in the West, the Act has played a central role in presidents' modern conservation efforts. See Bruce Babbitt, Introduction , in The Antiquities Act of 1906 (Ronald F. Lee, 2001 Electronic Edition). Presidents have declared, in all, 157 national monuments, protecting everything from the natural marvels of the Grand Canyon and Death Valley to Native American artifacts in El Morro and Chaco Canyon. See Carol Hardy Vincent & Laura A. Hanson, Cong. Research Serv., Executive Order for Review of National Monuments: Background and Data at 1 (2017); see also National Park Service, List of National Monuments, (last updated Sept. 21, 2018).

The Act works in three parts. First, it authorizes the President, in his discretion, to declare "objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government to be national monuments." 54 U.S.C. § 320301(a). Second, it empowers her to "reserve parcels of land as a part of the national monuments." Id. § 320301(b). Any parcel of land she reserves must be "confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected." Id. Third, it allows privately held land to be voluntarily given to the federal government if the land is "necessary for the proper care and management" of the national monument. Id. § 320301(c). Together, those provisions give the Executive substantial, though not unlimited, discretion to designate American lands as national monuments.

B. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument

This case concerns the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, proclaimed by President Obama in 2016. The Monument seeks to protect several underwater canyons and mountains, and the ecosystems around them, situated about 130 miles off the New England coast. See Compl., ¶¶ 2, 54–55. Covering in total about 4,913 square miles, the Monument consists of two non-contiguous units that lie within an area of the ocean known as the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone. See Proclamation at 2–3. The first covers three underwater canyons that "start at the edge of the continental shelf and drop thousands of meters to the ocean floor." Compl., ¶ 54. According to the Proclamation, whose scientific conclusions are (as yet) unchallenged, the canyons are home to a diverse range of marine life, including corals, squid, octopus, and several species of endangered whales. Id.; see also Proclamation at 2–3. Because of the oceanographic features of the canyons, they are also home to highly migratory species like tuna, billfish, and sharks. See Proclamation at 2–3.

The second unit covers four undersea mountains known as seamounts. See Compl., ¶ 55. Formed up to 100 million years ago by magma erupting from the seafloor, the seamounts are now extinct volcanoes that are thousands of meters tall. See Proclamation at 3. According to the Proclamation, the geology of the seamounts — namely, their steep and complex topography — results in a "a constant supply of plankton and nutrients to animals that inhabit their sides" and causes an "upwelling of nutrient-rich waters toward the ocean surface." Id. The seamounts thus support "highly diverse ecological communities," serving as homes to "many rare and endemic species, several of which are new to science and not known to live anywhere else on Earth." Id. at 3–4.

Together, the geological formations of the canyons and seamounts allow a wide range of unique and rare species to flourish. As such, the formations and the ecosystems surrounding them "have long been of intense scientific interest." Id. at 4. Although a range of scientists has studied the area using research vessels, submarines, and remotely piloted vehicles, "[m]uch remains to be discovered about these unique, isolated environments and their geological, ecological, and biological resources." Id.

In proclaiming the area to be a national monument, President Obama directed the Executive Branch to take several practical steps to conserve the area's resources. First, he directed the Secretaries of Commerce and Interior to develop plans within three years for "proper care and management" of the canyons and seamounts. Id. at 6. Second, he required the Secretaries to prohibit oil and gas exploration and most commercial fishing within the Monument. Id. at 7–8. Third, he directed the Secretaries to encourage scientific and research activities as consistent with the Proclamation. Id. at 8–9.

C. This Lawsuit

On March 7, 2017, several commercial-fishing associations, including the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, filed this lawsuit. Claiming injury from the restrictions on commercial fishing, Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief against the President, the Secretaries of Commerce and Interior, and the Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. See Compl., ¶ 4. Invoking the Court's jurisdiction to conduct non-statutory review of ultra vires executive action, see Chamber of Commerce v. Reich, 74 F.3d 1322, 1328 (D.C. Cir. 1996), they argue that the President lacked authority under the Antiquities Act to declare this Monument. See Compl., ¶¶ 3–4. The Government has now filed a Motion to Dismiss, backed by several intervening conservation organizations and two groups of law professor amici. The matter is now ripe for the Court's consideration.

II. Legal Standard

In evaluating Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, the Court must "treat the complaint's factual allegations as true ... and must grant plaintiff ‘the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.’ " Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979) ); see also Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253–54 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The Court...

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  • Mass. Lobstermen's Ass'n v. Ross
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit
    • December 27, 2019
    ...government; and (4) the area reserved is not the "smallest area compatible" with management. Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association v. Ross , 349 F. Supp. 3d 48, 51, 58 (D.D.C. 2018). Several conservation groups intervened to defend the Monument. Id . at 51.The district court concluded that......

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