Here's a potentially devastating setback for folks who expect the National Park Service to honor its Management Policies.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., has ruled that the Management Policies are a "nonbinding, internal agency manual intended to guide and inform Park Service managers and staff."
"There is no indication," the court points out, "that the agency meant for these internal directives to be judicially enforceable at the behest of members of the public who question the agency's management."
Now, that ruling is still being interpreted, so it's hard to say at this point exactly what the bottom line is. After all, while the agency might not have to toe the line with its own Management Policies, as I pointed out in an October post about proposed revisions to the policies, the Park Service still must hold to the National Park Service Organic Act and its mandate that preservation of the resource be key to agency management decisions.
This week's ruling was handed down in a case The Wilderness Society brought against Interior Secretary Gale Norton and NPS Director Fran Mainella back in January 2003. The gist of the lawsuit was that the Park Service had "chronically failed" to properly manage wilderness-quality lands within the national park system.
A year ago a lower court tossed out all but five of TWS' claims. The society then appealed the dismissal of the 39 claims, and that's what the appellate court ruled on. In its decision, the court held that The Wilderness Society had no standing in the first place to bring the bulk of the claims laid out in its lawsuit.
The ruling, written by Senior Judge Harry Edwards, noted that while TWS was correct in that there was no statute of limitations to its claims, neither the organization nor any of its individual members had standing to bring the lawsuit over the Park Service's failure to develop wilderness management plans because they couldn't demonstrate that they'd be injured by that failure.
Furthermore, The Wilderness Society couldn't demonstrate that a favorable court ruling would solve the problem. After all, the judges noted, just because the president of the United States calls on Congress to designate a wilderness area, that doesn't mean Congress will do so.
"Congress has no obligation to consider the president's recommendations, should he offer any, let alone act upon them," wrote Judge Edwards. "And no order from this court requiring NPS to submit recommendations to the president in the hope that he will in turn forward them to Congress will change this situation."
As for the Park Service's Management Policies, The Wilderness Society had argued that under Section 6.3.1 the agency was required to "take no action that would diminish the wilderness suitability of an area possessing wilderness characteristics until the legislative process of wilderness designation has been completed."
But the court ruled that it does "not view this policy statement as a commitment by NPS to manage areas as if they are wilderness once the agency commences review of lands for wilderness suitability."
And in holding that the Management Policies are not legally binding upon the Park Service, the judges agreed with the government attorneys who argued that the policies are only "internal guidance for NPS managers and staff."
The Park Service never issued the Management Policies in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act, nor published a final version in the Code of Federal Regulations, a technicality that a previous court held as necessary for government documents to have "legal effect."
Beyond that, the ruling notes that "it is significant that TWS points to no statutory provision requiring NPS to develop wilderness management plans. Neither the Wilderness Act nor the agency's organic act requires wilderness management plans. The fact that the Management Policies do not emanate from a congressional mandate further supports the conclusion that it was not meant to establish binding norms."
So, where does that leave us? I've heard that the Park Service might be issuing a press release in the wake of this ruling, and I plan to follow up with other legal experts to hear their thoughts. But on its face, the ruling is not particularly inspiring for those who disagree with the Park Service's interpretation of its Management Policies.