United States District Court for the District of Columbia
April 27, 2004.
SOUTHERN UTAH WILDERNESS ALLIANCE et al., Plaintiffs,
GALE NORTON, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, et al., Defendants
The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN BATES, District Judge
In this action for declaratory and injunctive relief, plaintiffs
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance ("SUWA"), Natural Resources Defense
Council ("NRDC"), and the Wilderness Society ("WS") challenge the
decision of Gale Norton ("Norton"), Secretary of the Department of the
Interior ("DOI"), and the Bureau of Land Management ("BLM") to permit the
sale of 21 oil and gas leases on approximately 25,000 acres of
BLM-managed lands in Utah. Compl. at ¶ 1. Plaintiffs contend that
defendants violated the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA")
because they failed to prepare an environmental impact statement ("EIS")
on the effects of oil and gas development on the 21 parcels at issue.
Plaintiffs seek to enjoin the sale or issuance of leases until BLM
prepares an EIS or other environmental assessment.
Presently before the Court is defendants' motion to transfer venue to
the United States District Court for the District of Utah pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). Defendants assert that the controversy in this case
specifically concerns lands in Utah and the citizens of Utah, that the administrative record is located in Utah, and that transfer would not
inconvenience the parties. For the reasons explained below, defendants'
motion to transfer will be granted.
Plaintiffs are non-profit environmental membership organizations. SUWA
is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, and has an office in the
District of Columbia. It has members in all fifty states and is committed
to "the sensible management of all public lands within the State of Utah,
to the preservation and protection of plant and animal species, and to
the preservation of Utah's remaining wild lands." Compl. at ¶ 7. NRDC
has more than 400,000 members throughout the United States and offices in
the District of Columbia. WS is headquartered in the District of Columbia
and has over 200,000 members throughout the country.
BLM is an agency within DOI responsible for carrying out DOI's
statutory and regulatory obligations governing oil and gas exploration,
leasing, and development. The agency manages lands identified as
Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) until Congress decides to preserve these
lands as wilderness. See Interim Management Policy for Lands Under
Wilderness Review, H-8550-1, available at
http://www.ut.blm.gov/utahwilderness/imp/imp.htm (last updated Dec. 22,
2003); see also 43 U.S.C. § 1782(c) ("During the period of [wilderness]
review . . . the Secretary shall continue to manage such lands . . . so
as not to impair the suitability of such areas for preservation of
wilderness."). In 1999, BLM completed a wilderness inventory and
identified 2.6 million acres in Utah that had wilderness character. 1999
Utah Wilderness Inventory, available at
http://www.ut.blm.gov/utahwilderness/background.htm (last updated Apr.
1, 2004); see also Wilderness Act of 1964, 16 U.S.C. § 1131(c) (defining
"wilderness character" as wilderness features associated with "an area
where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain").
In addition to maintaining public lands during wilderness reviews, each
BLM state office conducts a competitive oil and gas lease sale at least
four times each year if public lands are available for such competitive
leasing. 43 C.F.R. § 3120.1-2. Prior to a policy change in April 2003,
proposed actions on parcels in Utah identified as having wilderness
character, but not yet designated as WSAs, were stayed until the
wilderness value of the parcels could be addressed through land use
plans. Compare Instruction Memorandum No. 2003-195, Rescission of National
Level Policy Guidance on Wilderness Review and Land Use Planning,
available at http://www.blm.gov /nhp/efoia/wo/ fy03/im2003-195.htm (last
visited April 26, 2004), with Wilderness Inventory and Study Procedures
Handbook, H-6310-1, at 06(F) (Jan. 9, 2001). As a result, BLM rarely
issued oil and gas leases in these areas between January 2001 and
November 2003. Pl's Memo. at Ex. 1, ¶ 7.
In April 2003, Norton signed an agreement with the State of Utah
settling litigation in which Utah had challenged BLM's authority to
identify and protect lands with wilderness character. Stipulation and
Joint Motion to Enter Order Approving Settlement and to Dismiss the Third
Amended and Supplemented Complaint, Utah v. Norton, No. 96 Civ. 0870(B)
(D. Ut. Apr. 11, 2003). Plaintiffs maintain that the settlement agreement
significantly altered BLM land management policies. See Pl's Memo. at 3.
Specifically, plaintiffs contend that the settlement resulted in the
designation of fewer WSAs, permitting oil leases in areas with wilderness
character allegedly like the ones at issue in this case. Id. at 6-7.
In the summer of 2003, BLM's Utah office published a preliminary list
of 55 parcels for an oil and gas lease sale to occur on November 24,
2003. BLM and wilderness groups had determined that 21 of these proposed parcels have wilderness character.
Compl. at ¶¶ 26, 29. To prepare for these sales, on August 11, 2003, a BLM
Utah state office employee sent an email and paper to four BLM
headquarters officials in the District of Columbia that asked: "Is our
approach consistent with the recent Utah wilderness lawsuit settlement,
land use planning handbook, anticipated direction from the Washington
office, and other policy?" Pl's Memo. at Ex. 8. It then stated that "[w]e
believe it reflects the approach we have discussed with the Washington
office about in recent telephone conversations. We welcome your
Subsequently, BLM officials from Washington spent two days in Utah at a
workshop allegedly instructing BLM's Utah officials to lease lands having
wilderness character quickly and without further NEPA review. Pl's Memo.
at 10. BLM's Utah field officers were required to attend this workshop
prior to completing NEPA documentation for the November lease sales. Pl's
Memo, at Ex. 11. After this meeting, a BLM headquarters official
circulated a memorandum stating that a proposed lease sale did not need
new NEPA documentation to analyze the effects of the sale on areas
determined to have wilderness character. Pl's Memo. at Ex. 12.
Plaintiffs furthermore argue that the lease process was colored by the
National Energy Policy (NEP). They note that the NEP emphasized
increasing oil and gas exploration and production on federal lands and
directed BLM staff to "look for opportunities to improve and streamline
the management of the NEPA process to all energy proposals." National
Energy Policy, Report of the National Energy Policy Development Group
3-13, available at www.whitehouse.gov/energy (May 16, 2001). Plaintiffs
allege that one BLM official from Washington involved with energy policy
had "regular contact" with BLM's Utah employees relating to the disputed
lease sales, although plaintiffs do not specify whether or how that
contact related to the NEP or any other specific energy policy. NEP
implementation required BLM to identify land use plans as
"time-sensitive." Pl's Memo, at Ex. 14. One of the plans, the Vernal
resource management plan, includes three of the parcels at issue. Id. BLM
previously identified these three parcels as having wilderness character.
Compl. at ¶ 27.
SUWA filed a protest with Utah BLM regarding the 21 parcels at issue.
Utah BLM has not yet issued a decision on the protest. Def's Mot. to
Transfer Venue at Ex. 1, ¶ 10. On November 24, 2003, BLM's Utah state
office conducted the lease sale. Id at ¶ 11.
In the intervening months, the parcels at issue have received some
national attention. More than 160 Members of Congress have proposed
wilderness protection for various lands, including these 21 lease
parcels. See America's Redrock Wilderness Act, S. 639, 108th Cong.
(2003); H.R. 1796, 108th Cong. (2003). NRDC members throughout the United
States have sent more than 90,000 electronic messages to Congressional
members and the BLM, requesting that the federal government protect
Utah's wilderness. Various newspaper articles have addressed these
disputed lands, including an editorial in The New York Times and an
article in the Washington Post. Pl's Memo, at Exs. 15-18.
Defendants agree that judicial review in this case is limited to the
administrative record and that neither side is likely to call witnesses.
Def's Mot. to Transfer Venue at 10. Defendants and NRDC have counsel in
Washington, D.C., and SUWA has counsel in Salt Lake City.
A. Legal Standard
"For the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of
justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other
district or division where it might have been brought." 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). To support a motion to transfer, the moving party
must demonstrate that the "balance of convenience of the parties and
witnesses and the interest of justice are in [its] favor." Consol. Metal
Products v. Am. Petroleum Inst., 569 F. Supp. 773, 774 (D.D.C. 1983). The
moving party "bear[s] a heavy burden of establishing that plaintiffs'
choice of forum is inappropriate." Pain v. United Tech. Corp.,
637 F.2d 775, 784 (D.C. Cir. 1980).
Courts engage in a case-by-case consideration of convenience and
fairness when assessing a motion to transfer venue. SEC v. Savoy Indus.,
Inc., 587 F.2d 1149, 1154 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (citing Van Dusen v. Barrack,
376 U.S. 612 (1964)). Courts balance a number of private and public
interest factors, including (1) plaintiff's forum choice; (2) defendant's
forum choice; (3) whether the claim arose elsewhere; (4) convenience of
the parties; (5) convenience of the witnesses; (6) ease of access to the
proof; (7) transferee's competence; (8) congestion of both courts; and (9)
local interest in deciding local controversies at home. Trout Unlimited
v. United States Dep't of Agric., 944 F. Supp. 13, 16 (D.D.C. 1996); see
also Greater Yellowstone Coalition v. Bosworth, 180 F. Supp.2d 124,
127-28 (D.D.C. 2001).
Before conducting this analysis, however, the Court must decide under
28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) whether plaintiffs could have brought this suit in
the transferee forum. See Thayer/Patricof Educ. Funding v. Pryor
Resources, Inc., 196 F. Supp.2d 21, 32 (D.D.C. 2002). Venue is proper in
a case involving a federal question, such as this one, in the "judicial
district in which . . . a substantial part of property that is the
subject of the action is situated." 28 U.S.C. § 1391(e)(2). Here, venue
would be proper in the District of Utah because the dispute concerns land
in Utah, BLM's Utah state office was involved in the leasing decisions,
and the actual lease auction occurred in Utah. Indeed, both parties agree
that this case could be brought in the District of Utah. Pl's Memo, at 7; Def.'s Mot. to Transfer Venue at
B. Private Interests
Courts give considerable deference to the plaintiff's choice of forum.
Trout Unlimited, 944 F. Supp. at 17; see also Thayer/Patricof Educ.
Funding, 196 F. Supp.2d at 31. That deference, however, is lessened when
plaintiff's forum choice "lacks meaningful ties to the controversy and
[has] no particular interest in the parties or subject matter." Islamic
Republic of Iran v. Boeing Co., 477 F. Supp. 142, 144 (D.D.C. 1979);
compare Greater Yellowstone Coalition, 180 F. Supp.2d at 128 (finding a
nexus to Washington because senior federal officials in the city
participated in discussions to reissue the challenged permits, two of the
five plaintiffs had offices in the District of Columbia, and the case
involved federal statutes), with Hawksbill Sea Turtle v. Fed. Emergency
Management Agency, 939 F. Supp. 1, 3-4 (D.D.C. 1996) (finding an
"insubstantial factual nexus" with the plaintiff's forum choice of
Washington because the temporary emergency housing project, species
habitat, and alleged violations of environmental law occurred in the
Plaintiffs contend that this controversy is substantially tied to
Washington because the wilderness policy changes made by Norton and other
senior officials had a direct impact on the lease sales in Utah. Pl's
Memo, at 8. Plaintiffs direct the Court to evidence establishing such
ties, including an email and paper that an employee in BLM's Utah state
office sent to headquarters inquiring whether their leasing approach was
consistent with headquarters' policy. Pl's Memo, at 9. Plaintiffs also
emphasize the two-day workshop that BLM headquarters officials conducted
in Utah instructing Utah BLM personnel on leasing the lands in dispute.
Id. at 10. Finally, plaintiffs aver that one BLM official in Washington
"intimately involved" with the National Energy Policy emailed staff in BLM's Utah office ten
times regarding lease sales. Id. at 13.
In response, defendants assert that these examples fail to demonstrate
"special oversight by Washington of Utah BLM's mineral leasing program."
Def's Reply at 5. BLM's Utah state office administered the public lands
at issue, BLM's Utah State Director had authority to issue oil and gas
leases, and the lease sale occurred in Utah under the direction of BLM's
Utah state office. Def.'s Reply at 3, 5.
The primary issue in this case is not DOI's change in its wilderness
policy; instead, it is the BLM Utah state office's proposal to sell the 21
parcels and the procedures it followed. Even if BLM headquarters officials
changed the wilderness policy with respect to leasing lands with
wilderness character, the actual lease decisions regarding the 21 parcels
in dispute were made by officials in BLM's Utah office. Def's Mot. to
Transfer Venue at Ex. 1, ¶ 9. Despite the two-day workshop and
correspondence between the Utah and Washington offices, BLM's
headquarters officials were not actively involved in the decision to
lease the 21 parcels and the process employed. Indeed, their only
involvement stemmed from the wilderness policy change, and the resulting
guidance to BLM's Utah state office was meant only to ensure that this
change occurred. Although extensive involvement by headquarters has, in
some instances, been held to justify keeping a case in this
jurisdiction, see Wilderness Soc'y v. Babbitt, 104 F. Supp.2d 10, 14
(D.D.C. 2000) (denying motion to transfer to Alaska in part because of
the Secretary's "heavy involvement" in DOI's review of the impact of oil
and gas leasing on the environment, including his visit to Alaska for six
days in order to meet with residents and government and industry
officials and his signing and public briefing of the decision in
Washington, D.C.), "mere involvement on the part of federal agencies, or some federal officials
who are located in Washington, D.C., is not determinative." Shawnee Tribe
v. United States, 298 F. Supp.2d 21, 25-26 (D.D.C. 2002).
Additionally, neither party would be significantly inconvenienced by
having to litigate this case in Utah. Although the plaintiffs have
offices in Washington, D.C., SUWA is headquartered in Salt Lake City and
one of plaintiffs' attorneys resides in Utah. Plaintiffs are certainly
correct that defendants would not experience hardship litigating this
matter in this forum. However, the location of defense attorneys is not a
strong consideration when defendants move for transfer. See Northwest
Forest Resource Council v. Babbitt, 1994 WL 908586, *3 n. 6 (D.D.C. 1994)
("Although defendant's counsel are located in the District of Columbia,
any inconvenience to them is offset by the fact that they represent the
party requesting the transfer.").*fn1
Finally, both parties agree that witnesses will not be necessary and
that review will be based upon the administrative record. Def's Mot. to
Transfer Venue at 10; Pl's Reply Memo. at 16. Although the record is in
BLM's Utah state offices, its location should be afforded little weight.
See Air Line Pilots Ass'n v. Eastern Air Lines, 672 F. Supp. 525,
527 (D.D.C. 1987) ("Once the material is photocopied, boxed, and
sent to the District, it would not be a significantly greater hardship to
send an additional copy of these documents to the courthouse.").
In sum, because the issues in this case primarily involve decisions of
officials in Utah, and because no relevant records or witnesses are
available exclusively in this jurisdiction, the private interests of the
parties favor transfer to the District of Utah. C. Public Interest
The public interest similarly favors transfer. The controversy is
localized in the sense that it involves Utah lands, hence there is a
strong local interest in having this case heard in Utah. See Gulf Oil
Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 509 (1947) ("There is a local interest in
having localized controversies decided at home."); see also Hawksbill Sea
Turtle, 939 F. Supp. at 3 n.5 (noting the importance of permitting local
citizens to attend and observe proceedings in an environmental case).
Plaintiffs assert that the environmental organizations have "worked on
behalf of hundreds of thousands of members across the country for years
to protect the many special places in Utah's canyon country, including
the specific area with wilderness character here." Pl's Memo. at 14, Ex.
1 at ¶¶ 2, 3, 6; Ex. 2 at ¶¶ 3-6; Ex. 3 at ¶¶ 2, 3, 5. Thousands of
plaintiffs' members have made their opposition to the leases at issue
known to their representatives in Congress. And numerous articles and
editorials in national publications have focused on the 21 parcels. Pl's
Memo. at 15 (citing range of articles).
Notwithstanding this national attention, the dispute remains focused on
21 parcels of land in Utah. Land is a localized interest because its
management directly touches local citizens. See, e.g., Sierra Club v.
Flowers, 276 F. Supp.2d 62, 71 (D.D.C. 2003) (granting motion to transfer
suit involving the Florida Everglades in part because of the "depth and
extent of Florida's interest"); Trout Unlimited, 944 F. Supp. at 17
(granting motion to transfer to Colorado a suit involving the United
States Forest Service's decision to issue an easement for the operation
of a dam and reservoir on public lands because of the "impact that the
resolution of this action will have upon the affected lands, waters,
wildlife and people of that state"). As plaintiffs concede in their
complaint, BLM's failure to conduct an EIS or other environmental
assessments could severely impact these lands. Compl. at ¶ 32 ("Construction and operation
of wells, towers, pumps, pipelines, roads, and waste pits can destroy
wilderness qualities and scenic values, degrade air quality as well as
habitat for plants and animals, and negatively affect the quantity and
quality of resources. Cultural and historic properties can be
destroyed."). It makes sense that these alleged consequences would be
most particularly felt in Utah, and thus that the courts of Utah would
have a clear interest in resolving the dispute. See Trout Unlimited, 944
F. Supp. at 20 (noting that it is appropriate to consider "those whose
rights and interests are in fact most vitally affected by the suit")
(citing Adams v. Bell, 711 F.2d 161, 167 n. 34 (D.C. Cir. 1983)).
Finally, the District Court for the District of Utah has heard similar
matters relating to NEPA, and has an interest in doing so.*fn2 In Sierra
Club v. Hodel, 737 F. Supp. 629 (D. Utah 1990), environmental groups
sought to enjoin the construction of a road between two federally
protected wilderness areas until Garfield County and BLM conducted studies
of the road's impact on the environment pursuant to NEPA and the Federal
Land Policy Management Act. More recently, Judge Kollar-Kotelly of this
Court granted a motion to transfer to the District of Utah a case
involving oil and gas decisions of BLM's Utah state office. Southern Utah
Wilderness Alliance v. Norton, No. 01 Civ. 2518, Dkt. No. 22 (D.D.C. June
28, 2002). The court found that Utah's interest in the case was
substantial and outweighed any interest in litigating the case in the
District of Columbia, rejecting many of the arguments raised by
plaintiffs here. This Court agrees with that analysis and concludes that
transfer is appropriate because "the dispute in this instance will have
the greatest impact on the citizens of Utah." Id. at 9. Based on the strong local interest in having this case in Utah and
the District of Utah's competence with NEPA matters, the Court concludes
that the public interest factor favors transferring this case to that
For the foregoing reasons, the Court will grant defendants' motion to
transfer venue. A separate order accompanies this memorandum opinion. ORDER
Upon consideration of defendants' motion to transfer venue to the
United States District Court for the District of Utah pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), it is hereby ORDERED that the motion is GRANTED;
and it is further ORDERED that this case shall be TRANSFERRED to the
United States District Court for the District of Utah.