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Shasta Resources Council v. United States Dep't of the Interior

April 7, 2009

SHASTA RESOURCES COUNCIL, A CALIFORNIA PUBLIC BENEFIT CORPORATION; SHASTA COALITION FOR PRESERVATION OF PUBLIC LAND, A CALIFORNIA UNINCORPORATED ASSOCIATION; SACRAMENTO RIVER PRESERVATION TRUST, A CALIFORNIA PUBLIC BENEFIT CORPORATION, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR; KENNETH LEE SALAZAR, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR; INTERIOR BOARD OF LAND APPEALS; BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT; JIM CASWELL, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS DIRECTOR OF THE BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT; MIKE POOL, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS STATE DIRECTOR OF THE BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT; STEVEN W. ANDERSON, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS FIELD MANAGER OF THE REDDING FIELD OFFICE OF THE BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT; BRENT OWEN; AND KIMBERLY D. HAWKINS, DEFENDANTS.



MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: MOTION AND CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Plaintiffs Shasta Resources Council, Shasta Coalition for Preservation of Public Land, and Sacramento River Preservation Trust brought this action against defendants United States Department of the Interior, Interior Secretary Kenneth Lee Salazar, the Interior Board of Land Appeals ("IBLA"), the Bureau of Land Management ("BLM"), BLM Director Jim Caswell, BLM State Director Mike Pool, BLM Redding Field Office Manager Steven W. Anderson (collectively, "Federal Defendants"), Brent Owen, and Kimberly D. Hawkins (together, "Private Defendants"), alleging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"), 43 U.S.C. §§ 4331-4347, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act ("FLPMA"), 43 U.S.C. §§ 1701-1785. Plaintiffs' allegations pertain to a 2006 land exchange between BLM and Private Defendants involving a 216 acre parcel of federal land in Shasta County, California ("Federal Parcel"), and a 566 acre parcel of private land in Trinity County, California ("Non-Federal Parcel"). Presently before the court are plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and defendants' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.

I. Factual and Statutory Background

A. The Federal and Non-Federal Parcels

The Federal Parcel is situated west of the city of Redding in Shasta County, California. (Admin. R. ("AR") 397.) The parcel is surrounded by private residential properties, and as of April 2006, approximately 200 homes were within a one-mile radius of the property. (Id.) The property has been used primarily by adjacent landowners whose backyards abut the public land. (Id. at 403.) Motorized vehicles, mountain bikes, and pedestrian activity have created trails on the parcel, which have become popular with nearby residents and trail enthusiasts for walking, jogging, and mountain biking. (Id.)

A seasonal, intermittent stream called Salt Creek also traverses through portions of the Federal Parcel. (Id.) BLM and the California Department of Fish and Game have identified steelhead trout and chinook salmon as threatened or potentially threatened species that are known or reasonably expected to inhabit Salt Creek. (Id. at 400.) Thirteen recorded archeological sites also dot the land, including cabin foundations, minor ditches, and mine workings, although none of the recorded sites were deemed eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. (Id. at 399.)

The Non-Federal Parcel is situated within the Grass Valley Creek ("GVC") Watershed in Trinity County, California. (Id. at 397.) GVC is a major tributary of the Trinity River and flows year round through portions of the property, providing a habitat for seven species of fish including steelhead trout, rainbow trout, chinook salmon, and coho salmon. (Id. at 397, 400.)

The property is situated on the Shasta Bally batholith, and the erosion of decomposing granite threatens the salmon and trout fisheries of the Trinity River. (Id. at 386.) The Trinity River Task Force, established in 1984 by the Trinity River Basin Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act and composed of state, federal, and county agencies and Native American tribes, has initiated several actions to prevent erosion in the GVC Watershed and restore nearby fisheries. (Id. at 386.)

The Non-Federal Parcel is zoned for timber production, and higher elevations on the property are dominated by a mixed conifer forest including ponderosa pine, douglas-fir, interior live oak, and black oak. (Id. at 397-98.) The scenic qualities of the property make it well-suited for recreational uses such as hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping. (Id. at 403.) BLM's development plans for the Non-Federal Parcel include a potential trail system, access points, and vehicle parking. (Id.)

B. NEPA

In NEPA, Congress declared a national policy of "creat[ing] and maintain[ing] conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony." Or. Natural Desert Ass'n v. Bureau of Land Mgmt., 531 F.3d 1114, 1120 (9th Cir. 2008) (quoting 43 U.S.C. § 4331(a)) (alterations in original). This policy is realized "not through substantive mandates but through the creation of a democratic decisionmaking structure" that is "strictly procedural." Id. By mandating this decisionmaking structure, NEPA is intended to "ensure that [federal agencies] . . . will have detailed information concerning significant environmental impacts" and "guarantee[] that the relevant information will be made available to the larger [public] audience." Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project v. Blackwood, 171 F.3d 1208, 121 (9th Cir. 1998).

Under NEPA, before a federal agency takes a "'major [f]ederal action[] significantly affecting the quality' of the environment," the agency must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS"). Kern v. U.S. Bureau of Land Mgmt., 284 F.3d 1062, 1067 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting 43 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(C)). An EIS is NEPA's "chief tool" and is "designed as an 'action-forcing device to [e]nsure that the policies and goals defined in the Act are infused into the ongoing programs and actions of the Federal Government.'" Or. Natural Desert Ass'n, 531 F.3d at 1121 (quoting 40 C.F.R. § 1502.1) (alteration in original). Certain federal actions categorically require the preparation of an EIS, while others first require the agency to make a preliminary determination as to whether the proposed action will "significantly affect" the environment. Id.

To determine whether a proposed federal action will have a "significant effect" on the environment, an agency must prepare an Environmental Assessment ("EA"). 40 C.F.R. § 1501.4; see Metcalf v. Daley, 214 F.3d 1135, 1142 (9th Cir. 2000). If the EA reveals that the proposed action will significantly affect the environment, then the agency must prepare an EIS; otherwise, the agency issues a Finding of No Significant Impact ("FONSI").

40 C.F.R. §§ 1501.4, 1508.9; see Metcalf, 214 F.3d at 1142.

C. The FLPMA and the Redding Resource Management Plan

The FLPMA defines BLM's land management authority and "establishes systems for information gathering and land use planning." Or. Natural Desert Ass'n, 531 F.3d at 1117. The FLPMA directs the Secretary of the Interior, who oversees the BLM, to "develop, maintain, and, when appropriate, revise land use plans which provide by tracts or areas for the use of the public lands." 43 U.S.C. § 1712(a). These land use plans are typically referred to as Resource Management Plans ("RMPs"). 43 C.F.R. § 1601.0-1.

In preparing an RMP, the FLPMA requires, among other things, that BLM "give priority to the designation and protection of areas of critical environmental concern" and "weigh long-term benefits to the public against short-term benefits." 43 U.S.C. § 1712(c). The preparation of an RMP is categorically considered a "major Federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment," and thus always requires the preparation of an EIS. Kern, 284 F.3d at 1066 (citing 43 C.F.R. § 1601.0-6).

In 1993, BLM issued the Redding RMP ("1993 RMP") and a corresponding EIS detailing the agency's intention to consolidate and restore certain federal lands in the GVC Watershed. (Fed. Defs.' Stmt. Undisputed Material Facts ("FUMF") Nos. 2, 7, 14.) Under this plan, BLM sought to group more than one thousand scattered parcels of federal land in the GVC Watershed by obtaining additional parcels in the area from private owners. (Id.) In doing so, BLM hoped to improve management efficiencies and further its goals of preventing erosion in the GVC Watershed and protecting anadromous fisheries in the Trinity River. (Id.)

As it acquired parcels in the GVC Watershed, BLM also sought to dispose of certain federal parcels that were near growing communities and seemed better suited for development. (Id. Nos. 10-11.) In light of these dual purposes of acquisition and disposal, land exchanges were BLM's preferred method for simultaneously furthering these goals. (Id. No. 9.) BLM also preferred land exchanges because the acquisition of GVC Watershed lands was not otherwise within BLM's budget. (Id.)

BLM developed the 1993 RMP and EIS over a period of four years. (Id. No. 4.) During that time, BLM held approximately ten public meetings and made presentations to five separate county boards of supervisors. (Id.) Through these meetings, BLM sought to inform citizens and local elected officials regarding the implications of the plan and to solicit comments and alternatives. (Id. No. 5.) On October 1, 1992, BLM announced the availability of the RMP and EIS and provided a thirty-day protest period. (Id. No. 12.) The RMP and EIS identified the area containing the Federal Parcel in Shasta County as intended for disposal through a land exchange. (Id. No. 13.) Although some members of the community voiced concerns over the disposal of the Federal Parcel, BLM ultimately approved the RMP and EIS in June of 1993. (AR 780-82, 3355-56.)

Pursuant to the 1993 RMP, local interests had two years after the 1993 RMP was approved to submit Recreation and Public Purpose Act ("R&PP") applications to acquire any federal parcel identified for disposal before any other party could submit a land exchange application. (FUMF No. 18.) Because BLM did not receive any timely R&PP applications for the Federal Parcel, BLM segregated the Federal Parcel for disposal by exchange. (Id. No. 19.)

D. The 2006 Land Exchange

On April 22, 2001, Salmon Creek Resources Inc. ("Salmon Creek") offered to exchange the Non-Federal Parcel for the Federal Parcel. (FUMF No. 20.) The RMP had identified the Non-Federal Parcel as a priority acquisition because it was the largest inholding within the eroded portion of the GVC Watershed. (Id. No. 21.) During the next five years, BLM analyzed and evaluated the proposed exchange, which included 12 public meetings to solicit comments and alternatives, 529 letters and responses, 22 newspaper articles, and a biological assessment and consultation with other governmental agencies. (Id. Nos. 25-26.) BLM received approximately 100 comments, primarily from landowners near the Federal Parcel, which expressed concerns regarding development of the Federal Parcel and the resulting loss of open space and recreational use. (Id. No. 30.)

On April 26, 2006, BLM issued an EA with respect to the proposed land exchange along with a FONSI and a Decision Record to approve the exchange after a 45-day protest period. (Id. No. 48.) On May 1, 2006, BLM published a Notice of Decision in two newspapers circulated near the Federal Parcel and invited interested parties to submit written protests. (Id. No 49.) BLM received and considered several protests but ultimately rejected them. (Id. No. 50.)

Plaintiffs Shasta Coalition for the Preservation of Public Land and Sacramento River Preservation Trust subsequently filed appeals with the IBLA regarding the land exchange. (Id. No. 53.) After permitting Salmon Creek to intervene, the IBLA denied these appeals on September 28, 2007, and affirmed BLM's Decision Record, finding that it complied with NEPA and the FLPMA. (Id. Nos. 56-57.) Near this time, Salmon Creek assigned its interest in the Federal Parcel to Private Defendants (AR 4269), and the following month BLM issued two land patents to Private Defendants, transferring ownership of the Federal Parcel and consummating the proposed exchange. (FUMF No. 59.)

Plaintiffs subsequently filed their Complaint in federal court alleging that the land exchange between BLM and Private Defendants violated NEPA and the FLPMA. The parties now move for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.

II. Discussion

A. Legal Standard

Although both NEPA and the FLPMA impose specific obligations upon federal agencies, the statutes do not create independent causes of action to enforce these requirements; rather, alleged violations of NEPA and the FLPMA are addressed when a party challenges a final decision by a federal agency pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. §§ 701-706. Am. Sand Ass'n v. U.S. Dep't of the Interior, 268 F. Supp. 2d 1250, 1253 (S.D. Cal. 2003); see Ashley Creek Phosphate Co. v. Norton, 420 F.3d 934, 939 (9th Cir. 2005) ("Because NEPA does not provide for a private right of action, plaintiffs challenging an agency action based on NEPA must do so under the [APA]." (citing Sierra Club v. Penfold, 857 F.2d 1307, 1315 (9th Cir. 1988))).

Under the APA, a court may not set aside a federal agency's decision unless the decision is "arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law." 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A); see Marsh v. Or. Natural Res. Council, 490 U.S. 360, 378 (1989). In making this determination, a 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.'" Marsh, 490 U.S. at 378 (quoting Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 416 (1971), abrogated on other grounds by Califano v. Sanders, 430 U.S. 99, 105 (1977)). "This inquiry must 'be searching and careful,' but 'the ultimate standard of review is a narrow one.'" Id. In reviewing an agency's action, a court must be "highly deferential" to the agency. Friends of the Earth v. Hintz, 800 F.2d 822, 831 (9th Cir. 1980). A court "may not set aside agency action as arbitrary or capricious unless there is no rational basis for the action." Id.

Summary judgment is an appropriate procedural mechanism for reviewing agency decisions under the dictates of the APA. See, e.g., Nw. Motorcycle Ass'n. v. U.S. Dep't. of Agric., 18 F.3d 1468, 1471-72 (9th Cir. 1994). Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment must be granted if, viewing the evidence and the inferences arising therefrom in favor of the non-movant, "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c).

When reviewing agency decisions the "evidence" a court may consider is generally limited the administrative record. 5 U.S.C. § 706; The Lands Council v. Powell, 395 F.3d 1019, 1029-30 (9th Cir. 2005). Thus, when deciding motions for summary judgment in this context, a court's task "is not to resolve contested fact questions which may exist in the underlying administrative record," but rather to determine whether, in light of the record, the agency's decision was arbitrary and capricious under the APA. Gilbert Equip. Co., Inc. v. Higgins, 709 F. ...


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