Norton v. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
542 U.S. 55 (2004)

  • The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), acting under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), designated 2.5 million acres of Federal land in Utah as "Wilderness Study Areas."(WSA)
    • A WSA is a roadless wilderness that isn't now, but might someday be turned into a National Forest. In order to keep it safe, the BLM is supposed to manage these areas so they remain suitable to become National Forests.
      • So basically, strict limits on roads, mines, logging, or drilling activities.
    • The President recommends how each WSA should be permanently classified, and Congress uses those recommendations to determine if land should be designated to be a 'wilderness'.
    • Pending final Congressional action, WSAs must "continue to be managed in a manner so as not to impair the suitability of such areas for preservation as wilderness."
  • BLM proceeded to allow a large number of off-road vehicles (ORVs) to drive on the land, creating de facto roads, trails, and racetracks.
  • SUWA sued for an injunction.
    • SUWA argued that BLM wasn't meeting their FLPMA obligations, and that they were in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
      • SUWA argued that the amount of ORV allowed impaired the suitability of the WSAs so that they would no longer be appropriate to be designated a 'wilderness'.
    • SUWA claimed that the Administrative Procedures Act 706(1) (APA) allowed courts to compel "agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed."
    • BLM argued that under the APA judicial review is limited to final agency action, or to compel final agency action that has been withheld, and that the day-to-day operations of BLM land management that SUWA challenged are outside the concept of final agency action.
      • BLM claimed that suits under 706(1) are reserved for actions to compel a discrete final action, like issuing a regulation. To permit a 706(1) challenge to day-to-day management would inevitably require the courts to judge the sufficiency of discretionary agency action to comply with general statutory standards.
  • The Trial Court dismissed the case. SUWA appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that SUWA's allegations weren't specific enough to meet the requirements of APA 706(1).
  • The Appellate Court reversed. BLM appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that BLM had discretion to decide how FLPMA was implemented, but they did not have discretion to just completely ignore FLPMA.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and dismissed the suit.
    • The US Supreme Court found that APA 706(1) does allow courts to examine an Agency's failure to meet specific statutory requirements.
    • However, the Court found that APA 706(1) does not allow courts to examine a general complaint based on policy differences.
      • Basically, FLPMA does not have any specific statutory requirements regulating ORV use. SUWA was arguing that allowing ORVs would ruin the area, and that was not allowed under FLPMA. BLM argued that allowing ORVs would not ruin the area, and so was ok under FLPMA. That's a policy difference.
        • If FLPMA had a clause saying "No ORVs allowed" and BLM allowed them, then SUWA would be able to bring suit under APA 706(1).
    • The Court found there were five general types of actions that would be reviewable:
      • An order, a rule, a license, a sanction, or a grant of relief.
      • FLPMA required BLM to undertake "supervision and monitoring" which is none of those things.
    • The Court found that the FLPMA requires that BLM achieve its objective, but does not mandate how that objective is to be achieve. It also does not ban ORVs. Therefore BLM didn't fail to take a mandatory action, and their decision is not judicially reviewable.
    • The Court found that unlike a specific statutory command requiring an agency to promulgate a regulation by a certain date, a land use plan is generally a statement of priorities. It guides and constrains action, but does not prescribe them. Therefore it does not rise to the level of an action.
      • The Court found that "will do" projections of agency action set forth in land use plans are not a legally binding commitment enforceable under 706(1).