A federal appeals court has determined that the proposed Canyon Club project along the Snake River south of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, threatens irreparable harm to bald eagles, including the most productive bald eagle nest in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The February 20, 2003, ruling by the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit overturns a decision by a Wyoming federal district court that denied conservationists’ request for an injunction prohibiting development of the Canyon Club golf course and luxury second-home development.
“The appeals court confirmed what every independent biologist who has evaluated the Canyon Club project has said: This development poses irreparable harm to some of the most productive bald eagle habitat in the Northern Rockies,” said Timothy Preso of Earthjustice, who represents the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance in the case.
“This decision emphasizes the need for modifications to the Canyon Club to avoid disastrous results for bald eagles and the Snake River,” said Pam Lichtman of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. “We will continue to fight for legitimate federal oversight of this project. In the meantime, this development is currently under review by county officials who have not just the authority but the obligation to alter the project to protect the environment.”
The Canyon Club developer proposes 71 homes and a championship golf course on a portion of the former River Bend Ranch approximately 17 miles south of Jackson Hole along the Snake River. The project site is home to three bald eagle nests, including the Cabin Creek nest which produced eleven fledglings between 1992 and 2002 and is the most productive eagle nest in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Because the project involves filling of wetlands and constructing bank-stabilizing structures in the Snake River, it required a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps issued the permit late on a Friday evening in June 2002, and development of the Canyon Club continued over the ensuing weekend before conservationists could seek an injunction in federal court. After issuing a series of restraining orders against the project, the Wyoming district court in August 2002 denied the conservationists’ injunction request.
The Tenth Circuit reversed that decision, observing that “all of the expert witnesses at the [district court] hearing, including Canyon Club’s witness … , acknowledged that there was a significant risk that the proposed development would harm the bald eagles.” The appeals court also noted the limited environmental analysis conducted before issuance of the Clean Water Act permit, observing that the Corps studied only one development proposal that was both legal and accomplished the project’s purpose – the Canyon Club developer’s proposal. The Tenth Circuit sent the case back to the Wyoming court for reconsideration, and specifically pointed out that “the Corps must rebut the presumption that there are practicable alternatives with less adverse environmental impact.”
“There are ways to reconfigure the Canyon Club project to allow private development while safeguarding the public’s interest in bald eagles and the Snake River, but the Corps of Engineers never considered them,” said Scott Groene of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “Government officials shouldn’t simply let a developer get his way when irreplaceable natural resources will be harmed.”