Two ranching organizations, an Arizona ranch, and an Arizona rancher today won a major victory at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit when a three-judge panel affirmed a ruling by an Arizona federal district court that granted them summary judgment over a demand by environmental groups that grazing permits be revoked and then subjected to lengthy federal environmental review. The groups claimed the U.S. Forest Service violated federal law when it reauthorized permits that allow ranchers to graze their livestock on nearby federal lands as they have done for generations by not issuing full environmental impact statements (EISs) pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) prior to reissuing the permits. The Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, the Public Lands Council, Orme Ranch, Inc., and Bert Teskey, all represented by Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), maintained that Congress made clear that no EISs are required. After the two groups dropped challenges to seven Forest Service decisions, the matter was briefed and argued. The district court upheld the agency’s ruling as to seven of the eight decisions.
“That the panel ruled without oral argument shows how one-sided was the ruling in our clients’ favor,” said William Perry Pendley, MSLF president.
In fiscal years 2005 through 2007, the Forest Service, without conducting environmental reviews pursuant to NEPA, reauthorized several grazing permits on lands managed by the Forest Service. On August 15, 2011, the Western Watersheds Project and the Center For Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit alleging that 17 of the reauthorizations—seven in the Coconino National Forest in Arizona, three in the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona, six in the Prescott National Forest in Arizona, and one in the Coronado National Forest in New Mexico—violated NEPA. The lawsuit was filed despite the clear intent of Congress that the Forest Service is not required to do the reviews.
Beginning in 1995, Congress enacted legislation to address its concern that the inability of the Forest Service to complete NEPA analyses on expiring term grazing permits would delay renewal of the permits to the detriment of the western ranchers involved. Specifically, Congress sought to reduce the amount of documentation and expense required to conduct NEPA. In 2003, Congress strengthened these protections of ongoing livestock grazing by directing that term grazing permits shall remain in effect pending compliance with NEPA. Then, in 2005, Congress directed that reauthorization of grazing permits is “categorically excluded” from documentation under NEPA if the Forest Service makes certain determinations. The total number of allotments reauthorized under the provision may not exceed 900.
Mountain States Legal Foundation, created in 1977, is a nonprofit, public-interest legal foundation dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited and ethical government, and the free enterprise system. Its offices are in suburban Denver, Colorado.
For more info: Western Watersheds Project v. U.S. Forest Service