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Stupak-Thrall v. United States

ELR Citation: 26 ELR 20225
Nos. No. 94-1863, 70 F.3d 881/(6th Cir., 11/29/1995) aff'd

The court upholds an amendment to the U.S. Forest Service's land and resource management plan (LRMP) for the Sylvania Wilderness Area that prohibits the use of sailboats, houseboats, and certain food and drink containers on the portion of Crooked Lake, Michigan, that lies within the wilderness area. Ninety-five percent of the shoreline of Crooked Lake lies within the wilderness area, while plaintiffs own the other five percent. Plaintiffs and the United States thus co-own the surface of the entire lake under Michigan law. The court first holds that Congress' inherent authority under the Property Clause, Article IV, §3, cl. 2 of the U.S. Constitution, is not limited to regulation of purely federal property. Since 1897, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that "needful" regulations "respecting" government property will sometimes include the exercise of power over purely private property in order to ensure adequate protection of the federal interest. That the United States here has a defined ownership interest in the water presents a stronger case for Congress' regulatory authority under the Property Clause. The court holds that Congress has the power to regulate Crooked Lake in the manner described by the LRMP amendment, because the management prescriptions are clearly tailored toward protecting federal property, and there is no doubt that the restrictions assist in protecting the wilderness character of the area, which is a valid objective under the Property Clause.

The court next holds that Congress delegated its Property Clause authority to the Forest Service in the Organic Act of 1897 and the National Forest Management Act (NFMA). Under the plain language of the statutes, the Secretary of Agriculture may make rules and regulations to protect the national forests, and Congress' ability to delegate this power necessarily derives from its own ability to make rules and regulations under the Property Clause. Further, in the Michigan Wilderness Act (MWA), which established the Sylvania Wilderness Area, Congress instructed the Forest Service to administer each designated wilderness in accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964, which requires administration with a view to "preserving the wilderness character of the area." The court holds that the amendment is not inconsistent with a portion of the Weeks Act that states that the establishment of national forests will not deprive inhabitants of the forest area of their rights and privileges as citizens. The court next holds that Congress has authorized the Forest Service to regulate the Sylvania Wilderness Area, and that when the Forest Service acts to preserve "wilderness character" under the Wilderness Act, the scope of authority—except to the extent that Congress may expressly limit it—is coextensive with Congress' own authority under the Property Clause.

The court notes that the Wilderness Act and the MWA make regulation under the Property Clause subject to "existing private rights" or "valid existing rights." The court disagrees with the district court's holding that water law's "reasonable use" doctrine governs the federal government's actions in this case. The doctrine only makes sense when one riparian owner challenges another's use as unreasonable. But here the federal government's ability to impose restrictions does not stem from its status as a fellow riparian proprietor; it stems from its status as sovereign. The court holds that the Forest Service's restrictions are a valid exercise of the police power under state law, and that they are therefore a valid exercise of the police power conferred on the Forest Service by the Property Clause and limited by Congress' express reservation for state-law rights in the wilderness acts. Last, the court denies plaintiffs' motion for a stay of the restrictions pending appeal of the district court decision. To the extent that they seek a stay of a separate LRMP amendment prohibiting motorboats on the lake, they have failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. To the extent that they seek a stay of the district court's judgment and an injunction against enforcement of the amendment at issue, the motion for a stay must be denied because there is no likelihood that they could prevail on the merits.

[The district court opinion is published at 24 ELR 21180.]

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Todd S. Welch
Mountain States Legal Foundation
1660 Lincoln St., Ste. 2300, Denver CO 80264
(303) 861-0244

Counsel for Defendants
Peter A. Appel
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Before: BROWN, NELSON, and MOORE, Circuit Judges.