Norton v. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

PETITIONER:Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior, et al.
RESPONDENT:Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, et al.
LOCATION:Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

DOCKET NO.: 03-101
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 542 US 55 (2004)
GRANTED: Nov 03, 2003
ARGUED: Mar 29, 2004
DECIDED: Jun 14, 2004

Edwin S. Kneedler – argued the cause for Petitioners
Paul M. Smith – argued the cause for Respondents

Facts of the case

The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designated 2.5 million acres of land in Utah as “Wilderness Study Areas” under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA). Under the Act, the BLM is required to manage this land “so as not to impair the suitability of such areas for preservation as wilderness.”

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and several other environmentalist groups brought suit in federal district court under section 706 (1) of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which allows federal courts to compel government action when an agency has failed to meet its legal duties. SUWA claimed that the BLM had failed to take a “hard look,” as required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, at the effects of off-road vehicles on the Wilderness Study Areas. It also claimed that the permitted off-road vehicle use was in fact damaging the study areas in violation of the agency’s FLPMA obligations.

The district court dismissed the case, holding that SUWA’s charge that the bureau had failed to adequately protect the study areas was not specific enough for the court to hear under the Administrative Procedure Act. On appeal, a divided panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision. It held that the bureau’s discretion was limited to deciding how to implement the act, not if to implement it, and that SUWA could therefore bring suit to force it at least to take a “hard look” at the effects of the off-road vehicle policy.


Does section 706 (1) of the Administrative Procedure Act authorize federal courts to review the management of public lands under statutory standards and the land use plans of the Bureau of Land Management?

Media for Norton v. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 29, 2004 in Norton v. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 14, 2004 in Norton v. Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 03 101, Norton Versus Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Almost half of the State of Utah’s federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management or BLM, an agency within the Department of the Interior.

This case involves lands which may in the future be designated as Wilderness areas.

The respondent of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance sued the Bureau of Land Management, claiming that they had failed to protect these lands from damage by off road vehicles.

The District Court dismissed all three of respondent’s claims.

The Court of Appeals reversed and we granted certiorari.

Respondent’s first claim is that the BLM failed to protect Wilderness study areas from off road vehicle use.

A violation of the requirement in a law called the Federal Land Policy Management Act, which I shall hereafter refer to as FLPMA, that BLM mismanaged Wilderness study areas so as not to impair their suitability for preservation as Wilderness.

However, both the text of the APA and Pre-APA mandamus practice make it clear, that such a claim can proceed only where a plaintiff asserts that an agency fails to make a discrete agency action that is required to take.

The discrete-action limitation precludes broad programmatic attacks and the required action limitation rules out judicial direction of even discrete agency action that is not demanded by law.

Applying these principles to the present claim, FLPMA’s non-impairment mandate is mandatory as to the object to be achieved; it leaves the Bureau of Land Management discretion to decide how to achieve that object.

The second claim is that the BLM failed to comply with the provisions of its own land use plans.

A land use plan however is a tool to project present and future use, just one step in the overall process of managing public land.

Unlike a specific statutory command require an agency too, for example, promulgate regulations by a certain day.

A land use plan guides and restrains actions, but in general does not prescribe them.

The land use plan statement at issue here are not a legally binding commitment enforceable under Section 706.

We also reject respondent’s third contention regarding BLM’s fulfillment of purported obligations under NEPA, the National Environment Policy Act, to take a so-called hard look at whether it must supplement certain of its environmental impact statements in light of evidence of increased off road vehicle use.

To make a long story short, we find that those obligations attached only to proposed or yet to be completed actions and that the Bureau’s land use plans, once approved, are completed actions, giving rise to no further supplemental obligations under NEPA.

For these reasons and others discussed in an opinion authored by Justice Scalia and filed with the Clerk today.

We hold that none of the three alleged failures to act can be enforced by means of a suit under 7061.

So, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed and the decision of the Court in unanimous.