A key part of Western Watersheds Project's
work is using the courts to enforce our nation's environmental laws and improve
management of our public lands. Recent experience illustrates how WWP's legal
victories do promote changes in management and improve conditions on the ground.
How WWP's Legal Program
Over the last five years or so, WWP's
staff has worked in close partnership with the attorneys at Advocates for the
West to develop a broad portfolio of legal cases, involving literally dozens of
court cases and appeals across six western states.
These cases use a variety of legal tools -
including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental
Policy Act, Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, National Forest Management
Act, and other laws - in order to protect fish and wildlife, improve their
habitat, and block further degradation by greedy resource industries and
Typically, cases are identified through
on-the-ground work of WWP's staff and its network of activists and expert
scientists - who usually know what is happening to the land better than the
local BLM or Forest Service office.
Then the lawyers, scientists, and activists
collaborate as a team to establish goals and strategies intended to maximize our
leverage, and identify good litigation opportunities. Sometimes
we focus on one specific allotment - that may have high resource values, or
offer a good opportunity to set precedent - and sometimes we bring large cases
sweeping in millions of acres of public lands within an ecosystem or landscape.
At essence, WWP's legal strategy is to
"marry" law with science - proving to a court how an agency's decisions (or
failure to act) is harming the land and violating the law.
Scope of WWP's Litigation Program
WWP now has
pending cases challenging abusive livestock grazing on 12 million acres of
public lands across the West, in Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, and Oregon. No
other conservation group has such an ambitious public lands grazing litigation
program - and aside from our many victories (some described below), the sheer
size of these efforts is helping to promote change in public lands grazing.
In addition, WWP is also pursuing protections
for many imperiled fish, wildlife and plant species under the Endangered Species
Act. These species typically are representative of the declining sage-steppe
ecosystem - including the sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, pygmy rabbit,
mountain quail, and slickspot peppergrass. WWP is also seeking ESA listing of
the Montana fluvial Arctic grayling, a stunning fish that now is only found in
small parts of the Big Hole Basin in Montana.
WWP is also using the courts to fight Bush
Administration efforts to cut off public access to agency documents and
information under the Freedom of Information Act. We won two FOIA cases already
this year, and have others pending.
Finally, WWP is also working with other
conservation groups to battle irresponsible and destructive public lands
projects, aside from grazing. These include our successes in the last two years
blocking plans by USDA Wildlife Services to kill 75% of foxes, coyotes, badgers
and other so-called "predators" of sage grouse in parts of southern Idaho; three
years of success in blocking other Wildlife Services' plans to spray malathion
and other poisons across southern Idaho to control crickets and grasshoppers;
battling plans to burn sagebrush or juniper in Idaho and Nevada; and similar
misguided schemes by public agencies.
Our Victories Are Helping To Protect The
Because we are careful in selecting cases, and use the strong combination of
law-plus-science to prosecute the cases we bring, WWP has established a strong
track record of victories - not only in court, but on the ground too.
In Wyoming, for example, WWP filed suit in
September 2003 challenging grazing by rogue rancher Frank Robbins on 50,000
acres of public lands in the Bighorn Basin, near the Wind River mountains. This
lawsuit has already succeeded in forcing BLM to rescind a behind-closed-doors
"settlement" with Robbins - and resulted in halting Robbins' grazing in 2004. We
are now moving to have the court order BLM to rescind
Robbins' permits because of his history of violating environmental laws; and
intend to prohibit further grazing by Robbins on public lands in 2005 and future
In Utah, WWP filed federal court litigation
in 2002, challenging BLM's issuance of over 70 grazing permits covering 1.5
million acres in the northern part of the state. We are now nearing final
settlement of this case, which will require BLM to conduct riparian inventories
and improve stream conditions, while using the latest science to prepare a
comprehensive environmental analysis of livestock
In northern Nevada - where there are really
no other conservation groups examining BLM and Forest Service land management
decisions - WWP has brought several court cases and administrative appeals that
are shaking up the agencies and ranching industry. One case, settled last year,
required the Forest Service to improve stream protections from grazing on dozens
of allotments in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests. A second case, which we
just won, requires BLM to perform a full Environmental
Impact Statement assessing grazing Impacts upon sage grouse and other sensitive
species on over a million and a half acres in the Elko region. WWP also just won
an administrative appeal blocking BLM from embarking on a costly new "welfare
ranching" program in the Squaw Creek area.
Much of the focus of WWP's legal efforts,
however, continues to be on Idaho public lands. In the stunning canyonlands of
the Jarbidge and Bruneau rivers, we are challenging BLM's mismanagement of
grazing on 1.4 million acres. We won a court injunction this summer blocking
ranchers from increasing grazing beyond their permit limits, which BLM tried to
allow under the authority of a recent grazing "rider." That case will next
demonstrate that BLM has wrongly "outsourced" its scientific monitoring and
assessment to the livestock industry, dominated by Simplot Livestock Company -
the single largest public lands rancher in the United States.
WWP is also continuing its focus on improving
streams and uplands on the 1.8 million acres of the Owyhee Resource Area, in
southwestern Idaho. WWP previously won a sweeping injunction - affirmed by the
9th Circuit appeals court - requiring BLM to conduct detailed assessments of all
allotment conditions, and ordering interim stream protection measures. But the
Bush Administration has forced out BLM staff trying to do their job, and brought
in rancher "experts" to run the Owyhee office. WWP is now bringing court cases
and appeals to prevent this political interference from weakening grazing
reforms in this area.
Finally, in central Idaho, WWP's Greenfire
Preserve has provided the base for many legal efforts intended to improve
fisheries and wildlife habitat values. We continue to use the Endangered Species
Act to force irrigators on public and private lands to modernize their
diversions, and promote recovery of salmon, steelhead and bull trout. We are
suing the Forest Service to force it to adhere to the Salmon Challis National
Forest plans in managing livestock grazing and range improvements. We have
protected wolves from being killed on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area for
the last three years. This year we won another injunction ordering the Forest
Service to close large parts of the Lower East Fork allotment (in the
Boulder-White Cloud mountains) to livestock grazing because of cattle damage to
high altitude lakes and streams.
As a direct result of these efforts, streams
are now flowing that were historically dammed and diverted; riparian areas are
recovering; and ranching operators in central Idaho are having to spend money to
improve their operations - or are now willing to seek permanent retirement of
their grazing allotments or water rights. The fact that ranchers in the East
Fork Salmon River drainage are willing to support a Boulder-White
Clouds wilderness bill, with federal retirement of their grazing permits,
demonstrates the power of WWP's legal efforts in central Idaho.
Legal efforts have always been a powerful part of the conservation movement. WWP
ranks among the most sophisticated and aggressive in using the courts to enforce
our environmental laws and promote sound management of our public lands.
Lucas has served as WWP's outside counsel for the last five years. He is also
Executive Director of Advocates for the West, a public interest environmental
law nonprofit based in Boise. To learn more about Advocates for the West, visit
their website at