Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kurt Meister v. U.S. Department of Agriculture

Sep 29: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, Case No. 09-1712. The Appeals Court says that an agency is not entitled to deference simply because it is an agency. It is true that agencies are more specialized than courts are. But for courts to defer to them, agencies must do more than announce the fact of their comparative advantage; they must actually use it. And that means, among many other things, that the agency must apply -- rather than disregard -- the relevant statutory and regulatory criteria.
    Kurt Meister, a Michigan attorney appearing pro se [representing himself], argues that the United States Forest Service disregarded the relevant criteria here. Specifically, he claims that the Service failed to comply with several of its own regulations and one federal statute in developing its 2006 management plan for the Huron-Manistee National Forests in Northern Michigan. For the most part, we agree with him; and to that extent we reverse the district court's entry of judgment in the Service's favor and remand the case so that the Service may comply with those requirements forthwith.
    The case concerns the Service's management of recreational activities in the Huron-Manistee National Forests. The Forests occupy about 970,000 acres on each side of the northern one-third of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. In the east, the Huron National Forest ranges between 12 and 30 miles long from north to south, and stretches 60 miles wide from west to east, reaching the shores of Lake Huron. In the west, the Manistee National Forest is about 75 miles long and 40 miles wide, reaching Lake Michigan near Manistee.

    The Service issued a management plan for the Forests in 1986. In 2003, the Service published a notice of intent to revise the plan. The Service thereafter held public meetings and solicited public comments as to how to revise the plan. Meister commented on the Plan throughout its development. Those comments reveal fluency with the language of the relevant statutes and regulations; and they explained in considerable detail why Meister thought the Service was not meeting its obligations under the law. His principal comment was that, in developing the Plan, the Service had disregarded certain processes prescribed in its own regulations, so as to favor gun hunters and snowmobile users over other persons—for example, hikers and birdwatchers -- who use the Forests for quiet, solitary activities. He also commented that the Service should close more areas of the Forests to motorized activity than the Service seemed likely to close in the Plan. The Appeals Court said, "It appears that the Service disagreed with all of Meister's comments." Following an administrative appeals, Meister filed suit in district court and the district court granted the Service's motion, holding in general terms that the Service had complied with the applicable regulations. The district court denied Meister's motion.
    The Appeals Court summarize its holdings saying, "First, the Service's estimates of snowmobile and cross-country visitors to the Forests are arbitrary. . . Second, the Service has not complied with the requirement that it coordinate its recreational planning with that of the State of Michigan with the aim (to the extent feasible) of "reducing duplication in meeting recreation demands" with respect to gun hunting and snowmobiling. . . Third, the Service's reasons for keeping pre-designation and club trails open to snowmobile use are arbitrary. . . Fourth, the Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it failed to consider whether to close Primitive and Semiprimitive Nonmotorized areas to gun hunting and snowmobile use, as Meister has proposed."
    The Appeals Court ruled, "Each of these failures was material to the Plan's development. To that extent, the Plan's approval was arbitrary or without observance of procedures required by law. Given that holding, we have authority to 'set aside' the Plan. . . We choose not to exercise that authority today, but instead grant the Service a reasonable time to adopt a plan that complies with the law. Ninety days from the date of our mandate seems to us ample time for that compliance. The district court may extend that period upon some showing that the court finds compelling; but in any event the Service shall comply forthwith. The district court's judgment is reversed with respect to the claims summarized . . . Meister is entitled to judgment on those claims to the extent described . . . and the claims are remanded to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. The district court's judgment is otherwise affirmed."
    Access the complete opinion (click here).