In a case defended by Earthjustice, the United States Supreme Court announced today it won’t hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that affirmed a Forest Service supervisor’s authority to set public lands off limits to oil and gas drilling. The announcement means that a Forest Service decision banning oil and gas drilling in parts of the Lewis & Clark National Forest in Montana will remain in place for the next six to nine years. The Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association and the Independent Petroleum Association filed the appeal that was denied today.
In spite of today’s victory, the power of local forest supervisors to make decisions like the one in this case may be affected by proposed legislation supported by the oil industry. The energy bill passed in August by the House, H.R. 4, would strip forest supervisors of the power to make decisions about oil or gas leasing in the forests they manage and replace them with the Undersecretary of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. Mark Rey, a former lobbyist for the timber industry. The House bill has yet to be taken up by the Senate.
“Although the Supreme Court agreed the oil and gas industry has no right to demand drilling access to lands held in common by all Americans, the House version of the energy bill makes clear the current administration only favors so-called local control when the locals are their oil and gas buddies.” said Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell.
The lands in question extend south from the Canadian border in north-central Montana and border Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas.
“The decision by the highest court in the land to reject the appeal reinforces the public’s right to determine how public land is managed,” said Mark Good of the Montana Wilderness Association.
The case began in the mid 90’s when the oil and gas industry contested a Forest Service plan that kept some lands in the Lewis and Clark National Forest off limits to oil and gas drillers. The forest supervisor made the decision after a full public process that considered the use of the lands. The public overwhelmingly voiced its support for keeping the national forest free of bulldozers, pipes, natural gas wells, and roads that would likely accompany oil and gas development. Not willing to take no for an answer, the industry challenged the decision in federal court and lost a series of decisions culminating in today’s outcome.
Earthjustice represented a coalition of Native American, conservation, and recreation groups including: the Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Professional Wilderness Outfitters Association, Back Country Horsemen of Montana, Montana Audubon, National Wildlife Federation, and George Engler, a former Forest Supervisor.