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Sierra Club v. Block

ELR Citation: 16 ELR 20177
Nos. No. 84-K-2, 622 F. Supp. 842/(D. Colo., 11/25/1985) Judgment for plaintiffs on water rights issue

The court holds that the Wilderness Act creates federally reserved water rights in wilderness areas, but the federal government's failure to assert those rights is not agency action unlawfully withheld under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The court first holds that plaintiff Sierra Club has standing to sue under §10 of the APA. Plaintiff has satisfied the injury-in-fact test by alleging aesthetic and environmental harm to it and its members, and by establishing that its members use the wilderness areas in question and that the water resources are critical to their use and enjoyment of these areas. Also, the alleged injury is within the zone of interests to be protected by the Wilderness Act.

Turning to the merits, the court initially holds that the federal government has withdrawn the wilderness lands in question from the public domain and reserved them for a specific purpose. The court takes care to clarify the distinctions between land that is "withdrawn" from the public domain and is no longer subject to disposal and other use-related laws, and land that is "reserved" for a specific federal purpose. Although the wilderness areas here had been created from lands previously reserved as national forests and were therefore not directly removed from the public domain with the passage of the Wilderness Act, the court concludes that their designation as wilderness within a specific wilderness system and the limitations on mining, grazing, and other uses imposed by the Act, as well as extensive remarks in the legislative history, indicate Congress' intent to effectuate a second withdrawal and reservation of these lands. The argument that the withdrawal must be directly from the public domain is without merit. The court also rejects the argument that the Wilderness Act, like the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act (MUSYA) and Federal Land Policy and Management Act, merely presented management guidelines and did not specifically reserve the lands.

The court then holds that Congress intended to reserve water rights for these wilderness areas for general conservation, recreational, and scenic purposes when it enacted the Wilderness Act. The court distinguishes United States v. New Mexico, in which the Supreme Court held that the MUSYA did not create federally reserved water rights for the national forests for recreation, aesthetics, grazing, and wildlife preservation. The MUSYA did create these new purposes for the national forests, but they were secondary to the original primary purposes of water flow regulation and timber production, and the Court was not willing to imply reserved water rights for such secondary purposes. Here, the Wilderness Act is not a land-management statute; instead, it is the initial legislation for a new category of federal lands. Nor do the conservation and recreational purposes of the Act conflict with the original purpose of conserving water flow. Third, the statute and the legislative history indicate Congress' intent that the Act's purposes are primary, rather than secondary. The court further holds that the priority of water reserved for wilderness purposes dates from an area's designation as wilderness.

The court declines to hold that the federal agencies had a duty to assert the reserved water rights under state law. Although the Wilderness Act imposes certain duties on the implementing agencies, it does not specifically impose a duty to claim reserved water rights in the designated wilderness areas. In the absence of a clear statutory provision, the court declines to hold that the federal defendants unlawfully withheld agency action under APA §706(1). In recognition of the controversy prior to this case regarding the existence of reserved water rights in wilderness areas, the court similarly declines to hold that their inaction was arbitrary and capricious or otherwise unlawful under APA §706(2)(A). Lastly, the court holds that the public trust doctrine does not impose any duties not imposed by the Wilderness Act.

[A previous decision in this case appears at 15 ELR 20782.]

Counsel for Plaintiff
Lori Potter, H. Anthony Ruckel
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Inc.
Symes Bldg., 820 16th St., Suite 514, Denver CO 80202
(303) 863-9898

Counsel for Defendants
Richard Nolan, John Hill, Ass't U.S. Attorneys
1961 Stout St., Suite 1200, Federal Office Bldg., Drawer 3615 Denver CO 80294
(303) 844-2081

Christopher Hermann, Ass't Attorney General
Dep't of Law, 1525 Sherman St., 3rd Fl., Denver CO 80203
(303) 866-3611

Casey Shpall
Mountain States Legal Foundation
1200 Lincoln St., Suite 600, Denver CO 80203
(303) 861-0244