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Federal Government and Center For Biological Diversity Reach Settlement over ‘Wild And Scenic’ Rivers

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) settled a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) regarding certain California waterways designated as “wild and scenic” rivers. Thefederal lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court, Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management et al., Case No. 2:18-cv-02448 (C.D. Cal.),sought to compel USFS and BLM to prepare river Management Plans for segments of eight rivers in southern California, pursuant to the Wild and Scenic River Act (WSRA), 16 U.S.C. §1271 et seq.Under the stipulated settlement, the federal agencies have committed to prepare Management Plans for more than 100 miles of wild and scenic rivers flowing through their respective managed lands by the year 2024, in furtherance of protecting and enhancing the rivers’ qualities as special wilderness areas.

 

Background

The WSRA, enacted in 1968, provides for the protection of certain rivers throughout the United States deemed to have “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values,” so that they will be “preserved in free-flowing condition” for the “benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” (16 U.S.C. § 1271.) Congress may designate a river as qualifying for special protection due to its unique wild, scenic, or recreational characteristics. (16 U.S.C. § 1273(b).) “Wild rivers” are those rivers and segments that are free from impoundments and accessible only by trails, representing the “vestiges of primitive America.” (Id.at subd. (b)(1).) “Scenic rivers,” are similarly undisturbed and undeveloped, but accessible in part by roads. (Id. at subd. (b)(2).) Finally, “recreational rivers” are those readily accessible by vehicles that may have been partially impounded or developed, but are still largely free-flowing. (Id. at subd. (b)(3).)

After a river or river segment has been designated for wild and scenic protection, the federal agency that manages the area where that river is situated is tasked with developing a comprehensive Management Plan. (16 U.S.C. § 1274(d).)A Management Planis the source of protection under the WSRAand generally addresses “resource protection, development of lands and facilities, user capacities, and other management practices,” though the particulars of each respective plan are largely left to the discretion of the managing agency. (Id.)For those rivers designated before 1986, agencies were given ten years for plan completion. (Id. at subd. (d)(2).) Rivers designated after January 1, 1986, on the other hand, must have plans within three years of designation.(Id. at subd. (d)(1).)

 

The CBD Lawsuit and Settlement

In 2009, Congress added segments of eight rivers in southern California to the wild and scenic river system.(Public Law No. 111-11 (Mar. 30, 2009) 123 Stat. 991.)At issue in CBD’s complaint were portions of the spring-fed Amargosa River located in the Mojave Desert, the Owens Headwaters and Cotton Creek in Inyo County, Piru Creek in Ventura County, and the North Fork San Jacinto River, Fuller Mill Creek, Palm Canyon Creek, and Bautista Creek, in Riverside County. BLM was charged as the agency responsible for the administration of designated segments of the Amargosa River and Cottonwood Creek, while USFS was tasked with designated segments of the Owens Headwaters, Cottonwood Creek, Piru Creek, North Fork San Jacinto River, Fuller Mill Creek, Palm Canyon Creek, and Bautista Creek.

Despite the three-year window under the WSRA, none of the designated river segments were covered by a final Management Planat the time of the CBD suit, leaving their inimitable and desirable assets largely unprotected. Both BLM and USFS had adopted regulations implementing the WSRA, but neither set of rules applied interim protections to rivers that had been designated but still awaited a Management Plan.

CBD’s complaint sought declaratory and injunctive relief on the grounds that BLM and USFS failed to prepare comprehensive Management Plans for the aforementioned river segments within the statutorily allotted time period, alleging that the agencies “unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed compliance” with the WSRA in each instance. BLM and USFS filed an answer to CBD’s complaint on June 28, 2018, and the parties ultimately stipulated to settle on August 14, before any other pretrial motions were filed. On August 17, the court approved the parties’ settlement in full and dismissed the case with prejudice.

 

Conclusion and Implications

Pursuant to the parties’ stipulated settlement agreement, BLM and USFS commit to issuing final river Management Plans for all designated river segments identified in CBD’s complaint, no later than December 31, 2024—up to 15 years after designation of the rivers. CBD has declared the settlement a “victory for some of southern California’s most beautiful rivers.”The additional time for development of river Management Plans allows the federal agencies to engage with State and local governments and the interested public before developing the Management Plans, in accordance with the goals of the WSRA.

(Austin Cho, Meredith Nikkel)