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 ...