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SOUTHERN UTAH WILDERNESS ALLIANCE v. NORTON

April 27, 2004.

SOUTHERN UTAH WILDERNESS ALLIANCE et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
GALE NORTON, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN BATES, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

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.

  BACKGROUND

  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 comments." Id.

  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 ...


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