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Petitions of the week

Timber industry, federal government battle over preservation of southern Oregon forest

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The Petitions of the Week column highlights a selection of cert petitions recently filed in the Supreme Court. A list of all petitions we’re watching is available here.

Congress has given the president the power to create national monuments on public lands. Those monuments are overseen by the Department of the Interior. But Congress has also charged the agency with managing a wide array of other public lands, sometimes for purposes of development instead of preservation. This week,we highlight petitions that ask the court to consider, among other things, whether Barack Obama had the authority as president to expand a national monument in the forests of Oregon into land overseen by the Interior Department.

At issue in this case are two separate laws. Enacted amid the destruction of Pueblo ruins in southwestern states, the first law, the Antiquities Act of 1906, gives the president the power to designate areas of land owned or controlled by the federal government as national monuments and protect them from development.

Thirty years later, in the second law, the Oregon and California Railroad and Coos Bay Wagon Road Grant Lands Act of 1937, Congress directed the Interior Department to enforce sustainable harvesting of timber in a broad swath – nearly 2.6 million acres – of federally owned forest in Oregon, with instructions to ensure both a “permanent forest” and an economic benefit to local residents.

In the spring of 2000, then-President Bill Clinton designated 52,000 acres of forest spanning the California-Oregon border as the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument to preserve its “extraordinary biodiversity.”

Nearly 17 years later, in one of his last acts in office, Obama expanded the boundary of the monument on the Oregon side by nearly 48,000 acres and barred logging in the new parts of the monument. Part of that forest is governed by the 1937 law.

An Oregon-based timber company went to federal court in Oregon to challenge the monument’s expansion. Meanwhile, a trade association representing the Pacific Northwest timber industry went to federal court in the District of Columbia with a similar challenge. It argued that the president’s decision to bar logging in the new parts of the monument conflicts with Congress’ reservation of part of that same forest for timber production.

The Oregon district court rejected the timber company’s challenge. But the D.C. district court agreed with the trade association that the president could not use his Antiquities Act authority to designate lands reserved for development under the 1937 law as a national monument.

On appeal, the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 9th and District of Columbia Circuits sided with the government in separate rulings. Both courts of appeals concluded that the two laws could, and therefore should, be read in harmony. On the one hand, the 1937 law merely requires the Interior Department to reserve some of the covered area as timberlands, the D.C. Circuit explained. On the other hand, the Antiquities Act gives the president, who appoints the secretary of the interior, discretion to protect smaller parcels of land from development, the 9th Circuit reasoned. Accordingly, both courts of appeals held that the two laws work in tandem, even if in tension, to guide the executive branch’s authority over the Oregon forest.

In American Forest Resource Council v. United States and Murphy Co. v. Biden, the challengers ask the justices to grant review and reverse the lower courts’ rulings. They argue that the two laws are not in tension, but in direct conflict, because the 1937 law directs that lands “shall” – which, in statutory language, means “must” – be used for sustainable timber harvesting. Citing a statement from Chief Justice John Roberts regarding a challenge to a separate monument established by Obama, they insist that the Cascade-Siskiyou expansion is “part of a trend of ever-expanding antiquities” that encroach on Congress’s power over federal lands.

The trade association raises an additional challenge in its petition. It argues that the Obama-era revision of a plan by the Bureau of Land Management – the branch of the Interior Department that oversees national monuments – to cordon off a separate, larger portion of the forest from development also conflicts with the 1937 law. The bureau’s plan has been the subject of extensive litigation ever since it was first proposed, in 1995, to protect the habitat of the endangered northern spotted owl.

A list of this week’s featured petitions is below:

American Forest Resource Council v. United States
Issues: (1) Whether the president can use an Antiquities Act Proclamation to override Congress’ plain text in the Oregon and California Railroad and Coos Bay Wagon Road Grant Lands Act of 1937 to repurpose vast swaths of O&C Act timberlands as a national monument where sustained-yield timber production is prohibited; and (2) whether the secretary of the interior can override the O&C Act by designating 80% of the O&C timberlands as conservation “reserves” where sustained-yield timber harvest is prohibited.

Murphy Co. v. Biden
Issue: Whether the Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the president to declare federal lands part of a national monument where a separate federal statute reserves those specific federal lands for a specific purpose that is incompatible with national-monument status.

Price v. Montgomery County, Kentucky
Issues: (1) Whether absolute immunity is unavailable under 42 U.S.C § 1983 where a prosecutor knowingly destroys exculpatory evidence; and (2) whether absolute immunity is unavailable under Section 1983 where a prosecutor defies a court order that compels specific action, leaving no room for the exercise of discretion.

Dotson v. Justus
Issue: Whether a habeas petitioner can show that a mental illness constitutes an “extraordinary circumstance” that warrants reopening a final judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6), and equitably tolling the statute of limitations, without evidence that the mental illness rendered the petitioner incapable of filing during the limitations period.

Cela v. Garland
Issue: Whether noncitizens who were “granted asylum,” but whose asylum was later terminated, are eligible for adjustment to lawful-permanent-resident status under 8 U.S.C. § 1159(b).

Recommended Citation: Kalvis Golde, Timber industry, federal government battle over preservation of southern Oregon forest, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 11, 2024, 11:17 AM),