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Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance v. Dabney

ELR Citation: 31 ELR 20071
Nos. No. 98-4202, 222 F.3d 819/51 ERC 1180/(10th Cir., 08/15/2000)

The court reverses and remands a lower court decision holding that a portion of the National Park Service's (NPS') backcountry management plan (BMP) for the Canyonlands National Park in Utah that allows motor vehicle access on a 10-mile segment of road violates the National Park Service Organic Act (Organic Act) and the Canyonlands National Park Enabling Act (Enabling Act). The court first holds that there are inherent ambiguities in the relevant statutes and their application to the issue of vehicular access. Thus, the lower court erred in concluding that the Organic Act and the Enabling Act clearly preclude the NPS from authorizing activities that permanently impair unique park resources and that, based on the administrative record, such a permanent impairment would occur from the continued use by motorized vehicles of the 10-mile segment of road. The lower court erroneously characterized the question as whether the NPS is authorized to permit activities within national parks that permanently impair unique park resources. The correct question is whether the BMP is inconsistent with the clear intent of Congress as expressed in the Organic Act and the Enabling Act. Here, neither the word "unimpaired" nor the phrase "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations" is defined in the Organic Act. It is unclear from the statute itself what constitutes impairment and how both the duration and severity of the impairment are to be evaluated or weighed against the other value of public use of the park. The court next holds that there is currently no valid NPS position of what constitutes impairment that is worthy of deference. A position taken by an agency during litigation is not sufficiently formal that it is deserving of deference. Similarly, agency policy statements, such as the draft policy issued by NPS, do not usually warrant deference. Therefore, the court remands the case for the lower court to reexamine the evidence in the record regarding impairment, applying the appropriate standard to the NPS' finding of temporary impairment. Last, the court vacates the lower court's order enjoining the BMP's allowance of motorized vehicle use.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Heidi J. McIntosh
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
1471 S. 1100 East St., Salt Lake City UT 84105
(801) 486-3161

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

Before Seymour and Brorby, JJ.