The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld U.S. Forest Service (USFS) limits on vehicular traffic in the California Eldorado National Forest against claims that the rules interfere with mining in the area. Public Lands for the People Inc. v. USDA, No. 11-15007 (9th Cir. 9/26/12).

Plaintiffs had challenged a 2008 rule that restricted vehicular traffic to just over 1,000 miles of roads and 210 miles of trails, disallowing vehicles on 502,000 acres that previously had no such limit. The challengers are miners who had existing or potential future prospecting and mining interests in the forest and claimed that their access would now be restricted. The environmental impact statement (EIS) for the rulemaking recognized that the rules would at least impose a new requirement on miners to obtain permission by submitting a notice of intent or plan of operations to the USFS if access to their mining activities involves vehicular traffic in non-approved areas.

The miners asserted that the agency lacked authority to restrict motor-vehicle use and acted arbitrarily and capriciously by requiring a notice of intent or plan of operations to use roads and rights of way that were previously open. The district court held that the miners lacked standing to bring their action because they could not demonstrate “injury in fact” as a result of the new regulations.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, stating the district court’s approach “unduly burdens the standing requirements with bells and whistles not imposed by the Supreme Court.” Noting that the analysis does not depend on the details of plaintiffs’ mining rights, the Ninth Circuit found that the USFS decision imposed a new burden and that some challengers had alleged lack of access to their federal mining claims and mineral estates as a result.

The appellate court agreed, however, that the agency had clear authority to regulate motor vehicle traffic. Citing an 1897 statute that authorized the agency “to promulgate rules and regulations to protect the national forest lands from destruction and depredation” and to prior cases concluding the USFS thereby had a right to impose regulatory burdens on mining, the court dismissed the miners’ claims.

The Ninth Circuit further rejected an argument that “a web of statutes creates a national policy that protects self-initiation and encourages prospecting and mining on federal lands,” holding that none of the statutes limit the agency’s authority to regulate vehicular access. The court also rejected an alternative argument that other USFS rules required unrestricted access to “public roads,” including roads that the new rule closed to vehicles. Applying a deferential standard of review, the court accepted the agency’s definition of “public road” for purposes of that regulation, essentially making a road on which a regulatory restriction exists a non-public road.