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Sierra Club v. Martin

ELR Citation: 28 ELR 21212
Nos. CIV.A. 1:96-CV-926TWT, 992 F. Supp. 1448/(N.D. Ga., 01/30/1998) Motions for summary judgment

The court upholds the U.S. Forest Service's approval of seven timber cutting projects in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia against local and national environmental interest groups' challenges under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The court previously awarded the groups a preliminary injunction based on claims brought under NEPA and the NFMA. The groups were also awarded a preliminary injunction under their MBTA claim, but the Eleventh Circuit reversed. On remand, both the groups and the Forest Service move for summary judgment.

The court first grants the Forest Service's motion for summary judgment on the groups' MBTA claim. The Eleventh Circuit already held on appeal that the MBTA does not apply to federal agency actions that result in the death of migratory birds or the destruction of their nests. The court next holds that its previous orders granting the groups' motions for preliminary injunctive relief are inconsistent with the weight of authority that has developed during the pendency of this litigation. And findings of fact and conclusions of law reached at the preliminary stages of this litigation do not bind the court on final disposition of the case on the merits. The court further holds that it will not consider the groups' claim that the seven timber projects violate the NFMA's requirement that even-aged timber cutting be used only when it is consistent with the protection of soil, watershed, fish, wildlife, recreation and aesthetic resources, and the regeneration of the timber resources. The groups failed to raise this claim in a timely fashion. Therefore, the groups' motion for leave to file a supplemental brief is denied.

Next, the court rejects the groups' claim that the Forest Service has acted arbitrarily and capriciously by failing to follow its own regulations and manual in approving the seven timber sales. None of the regulations relied on by the groups apply to site-specific decisions such as approval of a timber sale. Moreover, even if the regulations apply to site-specific decisions, they are so vague and general that they create no judicially enforceable standard for the court to determine when the agency has sufficient data and when it has insufficient data. Likewise, nothing in the Forest Service manual imposes a duty on the Forest Service to have and maintain the sort of quantitative population data and population analysis trend data the groups demand before approval of timber sales.

The court also holds that the Forest Service did not act arbitrarily or capriciously under the APA or NEPA in its implementation of the 1985 forest plan by approving the timber sales. The Forest Service complied with the forest plan with respect to monitoring population trends of the management indicator species, and the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) does not require the Forest Service to have quantitative population data and trend analysis data for all sensitive species in order to approve specific timber sales. In approving the seven timber-cutting projects, the agency performed biological evaluations as required by the FEIS and in accordance with the directives in the Forest Service manual. Moreover, there is no basis for concluding that the Forest Service's findings of no significant impact as to sensitive species were irrational, arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion. And the effects on soil and water resources were adequately analyzed by the Forest Service and were of the character and magnitude anticipated by the forest plan and its FEIS.

[Prior decisions in this litigation are published at 27 ELR 20152 and 21057.]

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Donald D.J. Stack
Stack & Associates
100 Peachtree St. NW, Atlanta GA 30303
(404) 525-9205

Eric E. Huber
Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund
400 Magazine St., Ste. 401, New Orleans LA 70130
(504) 522-1394

Counsel for Defendants
James R. Schulz, Ass't U.S. Attorney
U.S. Attorney's Office
1800 Richard Russell Federal Bldg.
75 Spring St. SW, Atlanta GA 30335
(404) 581-6000