The Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit by environmental groups Monday that accused the federal government of failing to safeguard Western wilderness areas from an onslaught of off-road vehicles.
The unanimous decision said environmental groups could not use the courts to compel the federal Bureau of Land Management to take more aggressive action to protect land that is under study for designation as wilderness.
The case directly involved about 2 million acres of "wilderness study areas" in Utah, but legal experts said the decision could more broadly affect the legal treatment of lands across the West, including California. The ruling will significantly limit the ability of citizen groups to use the courts to enforce a broad range of environmental protections, the legal experts said.
Interior Department officials and advocates for off-road-vehicle users praised the ruling. They had asserted that environmental groups were attempting to use the courts to micromanage government decisions regarding wilderness planning.
Monday's ruling comes amid controversy over the Bush administration's energy policies, which advocate more oil and gas development in the West. Officials of 14 states, including California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, and a bevy of former federal environmental officials from the Nixon, Carter and first Bush administrations filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the environmental groups.
The case involved the four designated wilderness study areas in Utah, including the plateaus of the Moab area near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and canyons near Zion National Park. Congress has been deadlocked over whether to set aside the lands as official wilderness, a designation that would not allow off-road vehicles to use the areas.
In the years since the debate over the lands began, the number of off-road vehicles has increased sharply. The environmental groups that went to court told the justices that the number of such vehicles in Utah had increased from 9,000 to 83,000 between 1980 and 2000.
Federal land managers acknowledged in 2000 that "over the past several years, motorized recreation use has increased dramatically."
The Bureau of Land Management has had a policy, in theory, of controlling the use of off-road vehicles to prevent land that is being studied for wilderness designation from being harmed. But the agency conceded in 2000 that it had not carried out or enforced those policies.
Based on that failure, the environmental groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society and Earthjustice, went to court, arguing that the BLM had a legal duty to protect the wilderness study areas. A federal trial judge in Salt Lake dismissed the case, but it was reinstated by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Denver, which ruled the case could go to trial.
At the Supreme Court, the environment groups told the justices that off-road-vehicle users, rather than being limited to existing roadways, had created "ever more 'ways,' scarring the landscape and converting formerly pristine features like streambeds to ORV raceways."
Washington attorney Paul Smith, arguing for the environmental groups, contended that the BLM had breached a "mandatory nondiscretionary duty" to protect the land.
But Justice Department attorney Edwin Kneedler, arguing for the administration, denied that, saying that the BLM's plans "do not impose legal obligations that are owed to the public."
The justices agreed. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, acknowledged that off-road vehicles have had significant negative effects on the environment, "including soil disruption and compaction, harassment of animals and annoyance of wilderness lovers."
However, Scalia said the BLM had done what it could with "scare resources and congressional silence with respect to wilderness designation." Congress never envisioned "pervasive oversight by federal courts over the manner and pace of agency compliance," Scalia wrote.
Robert Keiter, an environmental law professor at the University of Utah Law School, said the ruling could raise questions about whether a number of broadly worded legal protections for wilderness areas would "prove enforceable in the future ... because of the court's unwillingness to put any teeth" into the congressional mandates. Because of that, the ruling also could have an effect on laws governing national parks, he said.
Tina Kreisher, an Interior Department spokeswoman, said the agency was "pleased that the court has upheld the principle that the federal resource managers may use their expertise to make day-to-day management decisions without unnecessary litigation."
She said the agency would "continue to work cooperatively with the public to protect wilderness while allowing other congressionally approved uses of public lands."
Rainer Huck, the president of a Utah off-road-vehicle group, called the ruling "a complete victory on all fronts."
But Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for Lockyer, said he was troubled by the ruling. "This ruling shackles the enforcement of environmental protection laws with an overly technical legal interpretation that runs counter to congressional intent," Dresslar said, adding that the ruling could negatively affect 90,000 acres of wilderness in California.
"Under this decision, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which the courts could step in and tell a federal agency that it is not doing its job the way Congress intended," Dresslar added.
Environmental organizations expressed concern that the ruling would lead to further damage to wilderness areas.
Mike Matz, executive director of Campaign for America's Wilderness, said the decision "implies that our wild lands can be held hostage in infinite limbo while destruction and degradation go unstopped and uncorrected."