Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ninth Circuit Upholds Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Approval of Coquille Forest Timber Project

On June 12, the Ninth Circuit (Fisher, Bea, Murguia) issued a decision in Cascadia Wildlands v. Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Under the Coquille Restoration Act, 25 U.S.C. § 715c, the federal government holds and managed the lands of the Coquille Forest along the southwest Oregon coast in trust for the benefit of the Coquille Indian Tribe.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) approved the Alder/Rasler timber project in 2011 and the Kokwel timber project in 2013 on adjacent and overlapping lands within the Coquille Forest.

Three environmental groups—Cascadia Wildlands, Oregon Wild, and Umpqua Watersheds—sued the BIA, alleging that the BIA’s approval of the Kokwel project violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because it did not adequately consider the project’s cumulative environmental impact in light of the Alder/Rasler project and violated the Coquille Restoration Act because the project is inconsistent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) Recovery Plan for the northern spotted owl.  The district court granted summary judgment for the BIA.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed.  With respect to the NEPA claim, the court held that the BIA permissibly considered the impacts of the Alder/Rasler project, which had been approved but not completed, as part of the baseline for the Kokwel project.  Moreover, the BIA allowably aggregated the impacts of the Alder/Rasler project along with other previously approved projects in the area.  With respect to the Coquille Restoration Act claim, the court held that the Act, which requires the BIA to manage the Coquille Forest consistently with federal “standards and guidelines,” does not require the BIA to comply with Fish and Wildlife recovery plans for endangered species such as the northern spotted owl.  Rather, the court interpreted “standards and guidelines” to refer to standards and guidelines in applicable federal forest plans, such as the Northwest Forest Plan.  Although the Coos Bay District Resource Management Plan specified consistency with recovery plans as an “objective,” the court declined to hold that the Act’s reference to “standards and guidelines” included the Coos Bay Plan’s “objective.”

—Todd Aagaard


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