In High Sierra Hikers Association v. United States Department of the Interior (N.D.Cal. 2012) 848 F. Supp. 2d 1036, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division, addressed whether the National Park Service (NPS) adequately assessed the environmental consequences of its General Management Plan for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (GMP) under the requirements of the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Court concluded that under the Wilderness Act, an agency must conduct a “necessity” finding regardless of the type of Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prepared. However, under NEPA, the Court explained that the level of analysis conducted by NPS was adequate for a programmatic EIS.
The Wilderness Act charges agencies, such as NPS, with the task of passing regulations that put the preservation of nature above commercial enterprises. If an agency wants to allow commercial activities, the agency must conduct a specialized “necessity” finding, showing that it considered the impacts of commercial activities and balanced all relevant factors. NPS argued the Act applies only to decisions that expressly permit commercial activities. NPS asserted that because the GMP is only a programmatic plan authorizing use at current levels, NPS was not required to make specialized findings until it implements its Wilderness Stewardship Plan (WSP). The Court disagreed, rejecting any distinction based on whether the agency is permitting new levels or simply authorizing current levels of commercial activity. Rather, the Court stated that since the NPS is charged with the main responsibility of preserving nature from commercial activities, a necessity finding is required under the Act. Therefore, the Court ruled in favor of the Plaintiff, holding that the GMP violated the Wilderness Act.
In addressing the Plaintiff’s NEPA argument, the Court noted that NEPA requirements differ based on the type of EIS required for a project. For a programmatic EIS, like the one approved by NPS, NEPA only requires an agency to include sufficient detail to help make an informed decision, whereas a site-specific EIS requires more specific data-gathering and analysis of impacts. The Court also emphasized that NEPA is a procedural statute, not concerned with outcomes but rather the process agencies must go through to ensure they make informed decisions. NEPA provides that agencies must take a hard look at the environmental impacts of their decisions, and must prepare an EIS that is available to the public and contains an analysis of possible environmental impacts along with reasonable alternatives.
In rejecting Plaintiff’s argument concerning the range of alternatives included in the EIS, the Court explained that NEPA does not require an agency to assess every alternative, but only the ones that are necessary to help make a reasonable decision and to allow for public participation. To determine which alternatives are reasonable, the Court explained that it must defer to the agency’s statement of purpose. In light of the stated purpose of the GMP, and because more detailed project-specific analysis will be considered by NPS when it adopts the WSP, the Court determined that the alternatives included in the EIS were sufficient under NEPA.
Next, the Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that NPS failed to take a hard look at the impacts of the GMP and Packer Permits. The Court explained that the level of analysis required to constitute a “hard look” depends on the type of EIS at issue. The Court held the analysis NPS conducted was adequate under NEPA requirements for a programmatic EIS. The Court also held that NPS reasonably deferred further, more detailed analysis until the WSP.
Lastly, the Court declined to require NPS conduct additional analysis regarding the impact of renewing the Packer Permits. The Court concluded that the Plaintiff did not demonstrate a substantive basis for the claim that the prior environmental assessments relied upon in approving Packer Permits were outdated. Therefore, NPS did not violate NEPA in deciding to maintain the status quo by issuing Packer Permits at current levels.
NEPA is a procedural act designed to ensure agencies take a hard look at environmental issues before taking actions that may impact the environment. Outside of the NEPA process, federal law includes a number of substantive environmental mandates that must be addressed by agencies. Agencies must be cautious to comply with the requirements of all applicable federal environmental laws not just NEPA.
Written By: Tina Thomas, Chris Butcher and Holly McMannes (law clerk)
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