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
So basically, strict limits
on roads, mines, logging, or drilling activities.
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
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
The Appellate Court reversed.
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
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).