Eleventh Circuit Defers to National Park Service’s Wilderness Designation

The Eleventh Circuit has upheld a decision by the National Park Service (“NPS”) to designate certain federal lands in Florida as “wilderness.” Nat’l Parks Conservation Ass’n v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior, No. 14-15326 (11th Cir. Aug. 31, 2016).  The NPS acquired approximately 112,400 acres of additional lands to add to the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida including approximately 244 miles of off-road vehicle (“ORV”) trails and designated 71,260 acres of the land not covered by ORV trails as “wilderness.”

The NPS held three wilderness workshops in 2006, 2009, and 2010 to assess, among other things, the impact that the public’s use of the ORV trails had on the land’s ability to be designated “wilderness.” In 2006, the NPS initially concluded that 111,601 acres could be designated “wilderness,” including the ORV trails.  During the second workshop in 2009 the NPS reduced that figure to 85,862 acres.  In 2010, the NPS reduced the wilderness determination again to 71,260 acres, excluding the ORV trails after a determination that the ORV trails presented a “lack of opportunities for solitude and the presence of human disturbance.”

Appellants National Park Conversation Association (“NPCA”) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (“PEER”) challenged the 2010 reduction in wilderness designation as arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act. In particular, Appellants contested the change that excluded the ORV trails from the wilderness area.  The Eleventh Circuit did agree with Appellants that, in fairness, the NPS’s definition for “wilderness” changed from 2006 to 2010, but that the definition was “not so diametrically opposed to permit the Court to conclude that the NPS drastically changed its criteria with the express purpose to omit the ORV trails from wilderness eligibility.”  The Eleventh Circuit was not persuaded by Appellants’ argument that the NPS conducted the wilderness reassessment simply to appease the State of Florida and special interest groups, citing the presumption of regularity in agency decisions.

Posted by Margaret Flatt.

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