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Sierra Club v. Watt

Citation: 14 ELR 20102
No. No. S 83-035 LKK, 20 ERC 1696/(E.D. Cal., 10/21/1983)

The district court issues a preliminary injunction barring the Department of the Interior from taking any further action, except for certain specified actions, in connection with the delisting of certain tracts of land in California and Nevada that had previously been listed as wilderness study areas pursuant to § 603 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). The court first rules that plaintiffs have standing to sue. Because the outdoor areas in question are used for recreation and other purposes by the members of plaintiff organizations, and because they are situated adjacent to lands owned by plaintiff state, all plaintiffs have suffered injury in fact. The court also rules that plaintiffs have satisfied the "redressability" and "zone of interests" tests. Although the injury complained of will not be realized in a concrete sense until third parties, i.e., developers, take advantage of the delistings by commencing development projects, the court concludes that this does not impair plaintiffs' standing nor render the action unripe.

Regarding the merits of plaintiffs' claims under FLPMA, the Department had removed from the list of wilderness study areas certain tracts, known as "split estates," which include within their boundaries lands subject to leases and rights-of-way that, because they predate the enactment of FLPMA, are exempt from the Act's requirements. Plaintiffs argued that such lands cannot be delisted en masse, but must be examined and removed from the list on a case-by-case basis. Because this is an action for a preliminary injunction, the court need satisfy itself only that plaintiffs have demonstrated a combination of probable success on the merits with a threat of irreparable injury, or that the balance of harms tips sharply in plaintiffs' favor and they have shown the existence of serious issues going to the merits. Under the latter standard, the court finds that there are more than serious arguments backing plaintiffs' interpretation of § 603 of FLPMA, and that they have met their burden of proof in this respect. While an intervenor may be correct in arguing that the term "public lands," as used in FLPMA, does not encompass the disputed tracts, the court must not entertain such an argument since it was not relied upon by the Department as a basis for its decision. Plaintiffs have also shown that there is a serious question whether the Department violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement on the delisting. Since the opening of the lands to more intensive use and development may lead to environmental degradation, the Department's action may have constituted a major federal action under NEPA.

The court finds that plaintiffs have also satisfied the other elements prerequisite to the issuance of preliminary relief. There is a significant risk that in the absence of an injunction the lands will be managed in a manner that impairs their wilderness characteristics irreversibly. Further, to the extent that defendants or third parties may be harmed by an injunction, that harm can be mitigated by careful design of the decree. Finally, the public interest will be promoted more by delaying action with respect to the lands than by permitting what may prove to be illegal and irrevocable misuse of them. Accordingly, the court preliminarily enjoins defendants from taking any action with respect to the disputed tracts, or permitting anyone else from taking such action, unless it was permissible prior to the delisting of the tracts.

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Laurens H. Silver
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Inc.
2044 Fillmore St., San Francisco CA 94115
(415) 567-6100

Joanna Wald
Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.
25 Kearny St., San Francisco CA 94108
(415) 421-6561

Counsel for Plaintiff-Intervenor
Craig Thompson
Office of the Attorney General
1515 K St., Suite 511, Sacramento CA 95814
(916) 445-9555

Counsel for Defendants
Robert D. Daniel, Gary B. Randall
Land and Natural Resources Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-5392

Counsel for Defendants-Intervenors
Ann Straw Rieck, Ronald A. Lane
Santa Fe Pacific Railroad Co.
224 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL 60604
(312) 427-4900

William H. Mellor III, Constance E. Brooks, Steven D. Ellis
Mountain States Legal Foundation
Suite 600, 1200 Lincoln St., Denver CO 80203
(303) 861-0244