Forest Service Alternatives Analysis That Did Not Consider Alternatives Unrelated to Purpose and Need for National Forest Motorized Travel Project at Klamath National Forest Upheld

November 9th, 2012

By: Thomas Law Group



In Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center v. Graham (2012) 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141142, the court considered a challenge to the United States Forest Service’s (Service) adoption of the record of decision (ROD) approving the Klamath National Forest Motorized Travel Management Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

In 2005, the Service adopted a final rule governing management of motor vehicle travel within the National Forests.  The rule requires that the Service balance the need to protect forest resources with the need to allow reasonable access to motor vehicles in designating new roads, trails and other areas for motor vehicle use.  In 2010, the Service adopted the ROD for the Klamath National Forest Motorized Travel Management project, which addressed the need to prohibit unrestricted off-road travel in Klamath National Forest, while recognizing that many pre-existing, user-created trails were not environmentally damaging and some were necessary for legitimate reasons to allow access to remote sites.  The ROD approved one of the alternatives considered in the accompanying EIS, which prohibited cross-county travel through the Forest, and added 53 miles of user-created roads and 20 miles of user-created trails to the Forest.  Plaintiffs challenged the Service’s approval of the ROD, contending that the EIS violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to consider an alternative that would have physically removed routes from the landscape or refrained from designating all existing routes for motorized use.  Instead, all of the alternatives increased the size of the transportation system in the Forest and designated motor vehicle use on all roads previously open to such use.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the court found in favor of the Service, holding that the EIS contained a reasonable range of alternatives under NEPA.  The Service identified the purpose of the project as addressing the problem of unmanaged cross-county travel in the Forest, and identified needs for the project, including a need to regulate unmanaged motor vehicle travel and need to make limited changes to the transportation system to provide access to recreation opportunities.  The Service relied on the stated purpose and needs to develop the seven alternatives analyzed in the EIS.  Recognizing that it must afford considerable discretion to the Service in defining the purpose and need of its project, the court held that including an alternative to decommission existing roads would have expanded the scope of the project without addressing the stated purpose and needs.  The court therefore held that the Service’s decision to limit the scope of the project and alternatives was reasonable and it did not act arbitrarily or capriciously by refusing to consider closure or decommissioning of existing routes.

The plaintiffs also argued that the Service should have assessed environmental impacts of the entire Forest transportation system, and not just impacts of the 73 miles of roads and trails added to the transportation system by the project.  NEPA requires consideration of all connected actions in an EIS, and the plaintiffs argued that the Service was therefore required to consider impacts related not only to the addition or roads and trails, but also the continued existence of the overall transportation system.  The court upheld the Service’s decision to address the existing infrastructure as part of the environmental baseline rather than a connected action.  Likewise, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that that the entire transportation system be considered as a cumulative impact rather than as part of the existing baseline.

Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the EIS and ROD failed to disclose site-specific information related to the land use allocations where the approved routes were located, as well as information related to impacts of the existing transportation system. The court found that the Service adequately disclosed environmental information and consequences of the proposed action.

 Key Point:

The “purpose and need” statement set forth in a project EIS under NEPA is similar to the “project objectives” required under CEQA for an EIR.  Under either statutory scheme, the agency is afforded considerable discretion in articulating the purpose or objectives of a project.  This case makes clear that, similar to decisions pursuant to CEQA holding that an agency is not required to consider alternatives that do not meet the stated objectives, even if those alternatives might otherwise reduce environmental impacts, an agency is not required to consider NEPA alternatives that do not meet the project purpose and need.

Written By: Tina Thomas and Amy Higuera
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