WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down a lower court ruling Monday that would have allowed environmental groups to sue for better protection of Utah wilderness study areas from off-road vehicles.
The strongly worded decision came less than three months after attorneys representing the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management argued the case before the high court.
Even then, justices expressed concern that allowing the organizations to sue the government could open the door to more court involvement in the management of federal agencies.
Monday's ruling, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, made it clear federal law "does not contemplate such pervasive federal-court oversight" that would put courts in charge of sorting out "abstract policy disagreements which courts lack the expertise and information to resolve."
Scalia wrote that if the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2002 for SUWA were allowed to stand, it would have improperly made federal judges the managers of public lands instead of the Interior Department.
The ruling was a blow to SUWA, which in 1999 sought to shut down off-road vehicle access to nine areas, including the San Rafael Swell and Wild Horse Mesa near Capitol Reef National Monument and the Coral Pink San Dunes.
"We're very disappointed," said Heidi McIntosh, the alliance's conservation director. "But we'll continue to work hard on this issue. It's an important one."
Off-road vehicle enthusiasts, though, had reason to celebrate. "Obviously, we're delighted," said Brian Hawthorne, public lands director for the BlueRibbon Coalition in Pocatello, Idaho. The coalition had joined the BLM in challenging the appeals court ruling.
Still, Hawthorne said, off-roaders need to realize Monday's decision doesn't mean there's going to be new trails in the areas under study. "They're still likely to see a lot of closures in the future," he said. "It's not open season by any means."
The Interior Department announced it was pleased that the court "upheld the principle that the federal resources managers may use their expertise to make day-to-day management decisions without unnecessary litigation."
SUWA and other environmental groups initially sued, saying the BLM ignored its own land-use plans and other rules prohibiting off-road vehicle damage on public Utah lands that are under consideration for designation as wilderness.
The high court, however, unanimously rejected all three claims upon which SUWA built its case — even though a divided panel of the appeals court in Denver had sided with SUWA, overturning a decision in 2000 by U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball in Utah.
The environmental groups' first claim was that the BLM violated its mandate to maintain study areas in a way so as not to impair their suitability for designation as permanent wilderness areas. They sued under the Administrative Procedure Act to compel such action.
But Scalia wrote that the law "leaves BLM a great deal of discretion in deciding how to achieve it" — and the act allows lawsuits only to compel action on some specific requirement, rather than an overarching goal.
He said if such suits were allowed, "it would (improperly) become the task of the supervising court, rather than the agency, to work out compliance with the broad statutory mandate, injecting the judge into day-to-day agency management."
SUWA also contended that the BLM ignored its own land-use plans. But Scalia wrote that such a plan is merely "a statement of priorities; it guides and restrains actions, but does not prescribe them. A statement about what BLM plans to do . . . cannot be plucked out of context and made a basis for a suit."
Third, SUWA contended that the National Environmental Policy Act required the BLM to take a "hard look" at whether to update an environmental impact statement used for land-use plans because of new evidence about growing damage from off-road vehicle use.
Scalia said once the land-use plans were adopted, the agency no longer was required to update the environmental impact statement that led to it.
"Since that (land-use) plan has already been approved, there is no ongoing 'major federal action' that could require supplementation," he wrote.
SUWA's McIntosh said she doesn't believe the case is dead yet. Some issues, including possibly whether the BLM is following its own regulations in regard to off-road vehicles, could still be litigated in U.S. District Court in Utah.
SUWA and other environmental groups could also turn to Congress for help, she said. The focus the case has put on damage done by off-road vehicles "really has put the issue on the the radar screen," McIntosh said.
Fourteen state governments filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case supporting the environmentalists — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Utah, however, along with several rural counties, filed briefs siding with the Bush administration.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, praised the ruling. "We've about had it in Utah with environmental groups trying to micromanage, through the courts, decisions that should be left to the professionals on the ground," Hatch said in a statement.
"Today the Supreme Court has said, 'Enough is enough, let's let the professionals do their jobs.' "