Sequoia ForestKeeper v. United States Forest Serv.

Docket Number1:21-cv-01041-DAD-BAM
Decision Date05 October 2021
PartiesSEQUOIA FORESTKEEPER, et al. Plaintiffs, v. UNITED STATES FOREST SERVICE, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of California

ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR A PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION

This matter is before the court on a motion for a preliminary injunction brought by plaintiffs Sequoia ForestKeeper (SFK) and Earth Island Institute (“Earth Island”) (collectively, plaintiffs) against defendant United States Forest Service (“USFS” or “agency”). A hearing on this motion was originally scheduled for August 3, 2021 however, on July 30, 2021, following entry of the court's order granting plaintiffs' motion for a temporary restraining order (Doc. No. 7) and in consultation with the parties, the court took this matter under submission to be decided on the papers without holding a hearing. (Doc. Nos 19, 21, 22.) The court now adopts the reasoning set forth in its July 23, 2021 order granting plaintiffs' motion for a temporary restraining order and will grant plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs allege as follows. The Plateau Roads Hazard Tree Project (also at times referred to as the Plateau Roads Timber Sale) (hereinafter “Plateau Roads Project” or the “Project”) is a hazard tree removal project and commercial timber sale on the Central Kern Plateau of the Sequoia National Forest that has been authorized by USFS. (Doc. No. 1 at ¶¶ 1, 19.) The Project authorizes hazard tree mitigation along approximately 45 miles of forest roads over 2, 193 acres and up to 200 feet from the roads, and the commercial timber sale authorizes the logging of 2.1 million board feet of timber from 1, 498 acres, a subset of the Project. (Id. at ¶¶ 2, 20, 26; Doc. Nos. 7-1 at 14; 8-3 at 2.)

The Plateau Roads Project was authorized pursuant to a categorical exclusion defined in 36 C.F.R. § 220.6(d)(4) (hereinafter “CE 4”).[1] (Doc. No. 1 at ¶ 23.) On June 2, 2020, the Deputy District Ranger for the Kern River Ranger District USFS issued a “NEPA Compliance Checklist” for the Project, [2] which outlines the project's purpose as follows:

The purpose of the Plateau Roads HT project is to fell and remove hazard trees that have potential to fail and cause injury to either people or property. The project may fell and remove dead, dying or live trees of any size which are hazards to roads, campgrounds, power lines or other infrastructure, as defined by the Hazard Tree Guidelines for Forest Service Facilities and Roads in the Pacific Southwest Region (USFS 2012). Trees determined to pose either a high or moderate hazard risk may be cut on about 2, 193 acres and may be sold as timber, fuelwood, or commercial biomass, chips or other forest products.

(Id. at ¶¶ 20-21.) Plaintiffs allege that [a]ccording to information provided by the Forest Service, while the hazard tree guidelines were followed, hazard tree evaluation forms that document each hazard tree and its status or rating were not prepared due to the large scale of the project.” (Id.)[3]

On July 1, 2021, plaintiffs filed their complaint in this action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and challenging the Plateau Roads Project's authorization pursuant to CE 4, arguing that USFS violated NEPA by relying upon this categorical exclusion, which covers the repair and maintenance of roads, to authorize a large-scale tree removal and timber sale without conducting the necessary environmental analysis. (Id. at ¶¶ 8, 56-60.) Plaintiffs filed the pending motion for a preliminary injunction on July 6, 2021. (Doc. No. 7.) On July 15, 2021, plaintiffs filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, in order to preserve the status quo because defendants had already begun the logging that plaintiffs sought to enjoin. (Doc. Nos. 12; 7 at 2.) On July 19, 2021, the government filed a combined opposition to both plaintiffs' then-pending motion for a temporary restraining order and to plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction. (Doc. No. 16.)

On July 23, 2021, this court issued an order granting plaintiffs' motion for temporary restraining order. (Doc. No. 19.) Therein, the court also directed the parties to file a joint response as to their positions regarding whether any further evidence or briefing was needed or whether the court may adopt its July 23, 2021 order in ruling on the pending motion for preliminary injunction. (Id. at 17.) On July 30, 2021, the parties filed a joint response. (Doc. No. 21.) Defendant requested additional, but modest, briefing. Plaintiffs disagreed that additional briefing was necessary, but stated that they were nonetheless amenable to defendant's proposed briefing schedule if the court found further briefing to be appropriate. Good cause appearing, the court granted defendant's request for leave to file a short memorandum of no more than five pages in length. (Doc. No. 22.) Defendant filed its supplemental memorandum on August 6, 2021, and plaintiffs filed their response thereto on August 13, 2021. (Doc. Nos. 23, 24.)

LEGAL STANDARDS
A. Motion for Preliminary Injunction

“The proper legal standard for preliminary injunctive relief requires a party to demonstrate ‘that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.' Stormans, Inc. v. Selecky, 586 F.3d 1109, 1127 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Winter v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008)); see also Ctr. for Food Safety v. Vilsack, 636 F.3d 1166, 1172 (9th Cir. 2011) (“After Winter, plaintiffs must establish that irreparable harm is likely, not just possible, in order to obtain a preliminary injunction.') (quoting All. for Wild Rockies v. Cottrell, 632 F.3d 1127, 1131 (9th Cir. 2011)). The Ninth Circuit has also held that an “injunction is appropriate when a plaintiff demonstrates . . . that serious questions going to the merits were raised and the balance of hardships tips sharply in the plaintiff's favor.” All. for Wild Rockies, 632 F.3d at 1134-35 (quoting Lands Council v. McNair, 537 F.3d 981, 987 (9th Cir. 2008) (en banc), overruled on other grounds by Winter, 555 U.S. 7.[4]The party seeking the injunction bears the burden of proof as to each of these elements. See Klein v. City of San Clemente, 584 F.3d 1196, 1201 (9th Cir. 2009); Caribbean Marine Servs. Co. v. Baldrige, 844 F.2d 668, 674 (9th Cir. 1988) (“A plaintiff must do more than merely allege imminent harm sufficient to establish standing; a plaintiff must demonstrate immediate threatened injury as a prerequisite to preliminary injunctive relief.”). Finally, an injunction is “an extraordinary remedy that may only be awarded upon a clear showing that the plaintiff is entitled to such relief.” Winter, 555 U.S. at 22.

B. Administrative Procedure Act

Compliance with NEPA is reviewed under the APA. 5 U.S.C. §§ 701-706; Grand Canyon Trust v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 691 F.3d 1008, 1016 (9th Cir. 2012); Nw. Ecosystem All. v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serv., 475 F.3d 1136, 1140 (9th Cir. 2007).

“The APA sets forth the procedures by which federal agencies are accountable to the public and their actions subject to review by the courts.” Dep't of Homeland Sec. v. Regents of the Univ. of California, ___ U.S. ___, 140 S.Ct. 1891, 1905 (2020) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Only “final agency actions” are reviewable under the APA. 5 U.S.C. § 704; see also Id. § 701 (for purposes of the APA's judicial review provisions, “agency action” has “the meaning[] given” by § 551). An ‘agency action' includes the whole or a part of an agency rule, order, license, sanction, relief, or the equivalent or denial thereof, or failure to act.” Id. § 551(13). Under § 706 of the APA, the court is “to assess only whether the decision was based on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment.” Regents, 140 S.Ct. at 1905 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

The APA “requires agencies to engage in reasoned decisionmaking, and directs that agency actions be set aside if they are arbitrary or capricious.” Regents, 140 S.Ct. at 1905 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). An agency's “determination in an area involving a ‘high level of technical expertise' is to be afforded deference. McNair, 537 F.3d at 993 (citing 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A)). The district court's role “is simply to ensure that the [agency] made no ‘clear error of judgment' that would render its action ‘arbitrary and capricious.' Id. (citing Marsh v. Or. Nat. Res. Council, 490 U.S. 360, 378 (1989)); see also Earth Island Institute v. Carlton, 626 F.3d 462, 472 (9th Cir. 2010). “Factual determinations must be supported by substantial evidence, ” and [t]he arbitrary and capricious standard requires ‘a rational connection between facts found and conclusions made.' League of Wilderness Defs./Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project v. Connaughton, 752 F.3d 755, 759-60 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted). Applying these legal standards, the court is required

to ensure that the agency has not, for instance, “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 [an explanation that] is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.”

McNair, 537 F.3d at 987 (quoting Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Assn., Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983)); see also Friends of Santa Clara River v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 887...

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