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Sawtooth Mountain Ranch LLC v. United States Forest Service

United States District Court, D. Idaho

June 13, 2019



          Honorable Candy W. Dale, United States Magistrate Judge.


         Pending before the Court is an expedited motion for a preliminary injunction filed by Plaintiffs Sawtooth Mountain Ranch LLC, Lynn Arnone, and David Boren against Defendants United States Forest Service, Sawtooth National Forest, Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Forest Supervisor Jim DeMaagd, and Area Ranger Kirk Flannigan. (Dkt. 11.) Plaintiffs challenge the approval of and any actions associated with the proposed Stanley to Redfish Trail (“Stanley/Redfish Trail”), as described in the Decision Memo signed by Mr. Flannigan on June 6, 2017.[1] The proposed Stanley/Redfish Trail will include a segment of over one mile that crosses private property owned by Plaintiffs. In their motion, Plaintiffs ask the Court to halt construction of the trail, which is currently set to begin on June 17, 2019.

         The parties had a full and fair opportunity to provide briefing supported by affidavits. (Dkt. 6, 7.) Defendants submitted also the Administrative Record (AR). (Dkt. 14.) And, the Idaho Conservation League submitted an Amicus Curiae brief and the accompanying declaration of John Robison in support of the U.S. Forest Service's proposal for the Stanley/Redfish Trial. (Dkt. 18.)

         The Court conducted a hearing on June 3, 2019, at which the parties appeared and presented their arguments.[2] After carefully considering the parties' arguments, written memoranda, exhibits, the Administrative Record, and relevant case law, and for the reasons that follow, the Court will deny the motion for preliminary injunction.


         Plaintiffs own or have ownership-related interests in real property in Custer County, Idaho, adjacent to the southern end of the town of Stanley, and westward of State Highway 75, in a contiguous parcel including all or part of Sections 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17 of T.10 N., R. 13 E., Boise Meridian (“Property”). The Property is located within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA), and consists of approximately 1, 781.07 acres. Decl. of Boren ¶ 3. (Dkt. 11-2.)

         The SNRA is located in south-central Idaho, covering more than 756, 000 acres. (AR 1127.) The SNRA is a Congressionally-designated special area, created in 1972 “to assure the preservation and protection of the natural, scenic, historic, pastoral, and fish and wildlife values and to provide for the enhancement of the recreational values associated therewith ….” 16 U.S.C. § 460aa. Redfish Lake and Little Redfish Lake are popular summer destinations located within the SNRA six miles south of the town of Stanley. (AR 1127.) State Highway 75 connects Redfish Lake to Stanley, with high speed traffic and heavy summer traffic volumes. (AR 1128.) There currently is no alternative transportation route connecting Stanley and Redfish Lake. (AR 1128.)

         In the early to mid-1990's, SNRA staff began discussing the idea of constructing a trail connecting Stanley and Redfish Lake to provide an alternate means of travel between the two areas. (AR 1126.) At that time, the Forest Service envisioned a trail that would provide non-motorized travel, and serve pedestrians, bicyclists, and equestrians. (AR 0938.) In 2005, the Forest Service purchased a 30-foot-wide “Public Trail Easement” from the prior owners of the Property to connect the proposed trail route between Stanley and Redfish Lake. (AR 0698.)[3]

         The Public Trail Easement, which is part of a comprehensive Conservation Easement Deed, states:

K. Nothing herein contained shall be construed as affording the public access to any portion of the Property except that the United States is hereby granted the right to permit public use of the following:
(1) A strip of land to be utilized as a trail in that portion of the Easement area within Secs. 9, 15, and 16, as shown on Exhibit D, attached hereto and made a part hereof. The total right-of-way width of the trail easement shall be 30 feet. The following uses are allowed on the trail: snowmobile, snow grooming equipment, bicycle, horse, and foot travel. The Grantee may erect appropriate signs to delineate the public use areas where needed.
(2) A strip of land along Valley Creek, to be utilized for foot travel only, extending from the centerline of Valley Creek to point parallel and being 20 feet distant beyond each mean high water line of Valley Creek. The Grantee may erect appropriate signs to delineate the public use areas where needed.

Decl. of Boren Ex. A. (Dkt. 11-2 at 22.) (AR 0833.)

         In 2012, the Forest Service initiated internal scoping to review the potential trail connecting Stanley and Redfish Lake (see, e.g., AR 1126), and in early 2014, began external scoping to solicit feedback on the proposed project. (AR 0921.) As part of this process, a survey was conducted, confirming that “overall public opinion is greatly in support of a trail between Stanley and The Redfish Lake area.” (AR 1048.)

         As part of the scoping process, the Forest Service released a Notice of Proposed Action (“Proposed Action”) for the Stanley/Redfish Trail to the public in February of 2014. See, Boren Decl. at ¶¶ 17-19; Exhibits F-H. According to the Proposed Action, the Stanley/Redfish Trail would be about 4.4 miles long, of which about 1.5 miles would traverse the Property, and would “be a consistent 78″ (6′-6″) wide to accommodate passing bike traffic.” Proposed Action (Boren Decl. Ex. G) at 2. A “natural surface” was proposed on about 1.2 miles of the trail, with the remainder to consist of “angular gravel” up to several inches “above adjacent grade, ” and the trail would be classified as a Trail Class 4 structure under the Forest Service trail classification system. Id.[4] The trail location and alignment were depicted in a map dated February 21, 2014. Boren Decl. Ex. H.

         Plaintiffs acquired the Property[5] in the fall of 2016, and were aware of the May 10, 2005 Conservation Easement Deed when they purchased the Property. Decl. of Boren ¶ 8; Ex. A. Forest Service Area Ranger Kirk Flannigan contacted Mr. Boren by letter dated November 30, 2016, to ensure he was aware of the proposed construction. (AR 0001.)

         After completing internal and external scoping, the Forest Service on June 6, 2017, authorized construction of the Stanley/Redfish Trail without further environmental analyses pursuant to a Categorical Exclusion. (AR 0296 - 0304.) SNRA Ranger Kirk Flannigan signed the June 6, 2017 Decision Memo on behalf of the Forest Service. The Decision Memo explains that public feedback on the Proposed Action was received in several ways, through surveys circulated by the City of Stanley and the Forest Service, at a public meeting attended by approximately 25 people, and through sixteen (16) written comments. Decision Memo at 9-10. (AR 0296 - 0304.) The Decision Memo approved construction of the Stanley/Redfish Trail, essentially as presented in the Proposed Action, including the location and alignment of the trail depicted in the Proposed Action released to the public in February of 2014. Id. at 2.

         Plaintiffs did not comment on the Proposed Action, as they did not acquire the Property until the fall of 2016, and were not aware of the 2014 Proposed Action or associated documents. Defendants contend, however, that the Forest Service personally informed Plaintiffs of the Proposed Action, and that it had been listed continuously in the Sawtooth National Forest Schedule of Proposed Actions since January 1, 2014.[6]

         On April 12, 2018, the Forest Service entered an intra-agency agreement with the Western Federal Lands Highway Division of the United States Department of Transportation to design the trail. Declaration of Matthew Phillips (“Phillips Decl.”) ¶ 5. (Dkt. 17-3.) In July of 2018, Western Federal Lands Highway Division solicited bids for the project and project was awarded in September of 2018 to Hobble Creek Services, LLC. Id. ¶ 6.

         During the bid solicitation process, SNRA Landscape Architect Matthew Phillips communicated with David Boren. The first communications between Phillips and Boren regarding the Stanley/Redfish Trail occurred in mid-2018. The two met on the Property in July, when they “walked part of the proposed route, [and] shared views about the best location and manner of constructing the trail.” Boren Decl. at ¶ 13. Boren expected that the next step would be a revised proposal from the Forest Service that would be “less damaging to the land, the wetlands, and the scenic beauty of the area, while providing a better and more enjoyable trail for the allowed uses.” Id. However, by letter dated November 26, 2018, the Forest Service informed Boren that “[t]he Sawtooth NRA plans to proceed with developing the trail, in its entirety as proposed.” Boren Decl. at 15 and Ex. E at 2.

         On March 19, 2019, the SNRA contacted Boren by email to discuss the SNRA's plans for beginning construction on the Stanley/Redfish Trail. Boren Decl. at ¶ 23. During a follow up telephone call with Phillips on April 2, 2019, Boren reiterated his concerns about the excessive construction of the trail, his view that the project involved activity beyond the scope of the easement, and noted that the alignment of the trail as presented to the public and approved in the Decision Memo deviated from the boundaries of the deeded easement and would trespass across the Property. Id. at ¶ 24. Area Ranger Kirk Flannigan, on behalf of the SNRA, responded in writing on April 9, 2019, characterizing the decision document maps as a “graphic, ” depicting the trail location as a “general illustration, ” and acknowledging that “[t]he illustration of the trail alignment in the [Decision Memo] does not exactly follow the easement, as stated in your letter.” Id. at ¶ 27 and Ex. K. However, Flannigan assured Boren that the trail construction drawings provided by Phillips, the trail architect, “should further assuage your concern as it assures that the trail will only be located within the easement that crosses the private parcel.” Id.

         Construction of the Stanley/Redfish Trail is scheduled to begin on June 17, 2019, (Phillips Decl. ¶ 7), and must be completed by September 5, 2019, pursuant to the contract with Hobble Creek Services (Decl. of Michael Hurst (“Hurst Decl.”) ¶ 3). (Dkt. 17-1.) The Stanley/Redfish Trail is supported by the community, including the City of Stanley, the Idaho Conservation League, the Sawtooth Association, the Stanley-Sawtooth Chamber of Commerce, and the Idaho Department of Transportation. Phillips Decl. ¶¶ 8-12 and Exs. C-F. (Dkt. 17-2.) Brief of Amicus Curiae. (Dkt. 18.)


         Plaintiffs filed a complaint on April 9, 2019, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief under the Sawtooth National Recreation Area Act, 16 U.S.C. § 460aa et. seq. (“SNRA Act”); the National Forest Management Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1600 et. seq. (“NFMA”); the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4331, et. seq. (“NEPA”); the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 551, et. seq. (the “APA”); and the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201. Plaintiffs' primary avenue of review is under the APA.

         In Count One, Plaintiffs allege Defendants' presentation and approval of the trail project violates the SNRA Act, because the trail as proposed is a “greenbelt, ” and therefore contrary to the strictures of the Act, which requires the Forest Service to preserve “natural, scenic, historic, pastoral, and fish and wildlife values….” In Count Two, Plaintiffs allege Defendants violated NEPA when they relied upon a “categorical exclusion” to approve the trail project, thereby circumventing NEPA's review process. In Count Three, Plaintiffs allege the trail project traverses multiple riparian conservation areas (RCAs) in violation of the NFMA. In Count Four, Plaintiffs contend the Conservation Easement provides limited authorization to Defendants to construct a right-of-way for the public to use as a trail, and that the project as proposed exceeds the scope of the grant and falls outside the boundary of the easement. In Count Five, Plaintiffs assert Defendants' failures to comply with the SNRA Act, NEPA, NFMA, and the Conservation Easement restrictions are “arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise not in accordance with the law, ” in violation of the APA. And last, in Count Six, Plaintiffs seek declaratory relief.

         Plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary injunction on May 10, 2019, claiming they can demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits on three of their claims - Counts Two, Three, and Four. Plaintiffs first address Count Four, claiming the SNRA's actions are contrary to the terms of the conservation easement deed. They ask for a declaration that, under Idaho law, the development of the Stanley/Redfish Trail as proposed, with features such as culverts, placement of off-site materials, and gravel trail surfaces, exceeds the scope of the easement grant. Second, Plaintiffs argue that extraordinary circumstances exist which preclude use of a categorical exclusion, and requires the preparation of a full Environmental Analysis (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under NEPA. Additionally, Plaintiffs contend the Decision Memo violates NEPA by failing to adequately disclose and analyze ground-disturbing actions, and by approving the wrong trail alignment. Third, Plaintiffs argue the Decision Memo violates NFMA because it is inconsistent with the Sawtooth Forest Plan, as it ignores development standards requiring mitigation to riparian conservation areas.


         A preliminary injunction is “an extraordinary remedy never awarded as of right.” Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7 (2008). It is not an adjudication on the merits, “but a device for preserving the status quo and preventing irreparable loss of rights before a judgment.” Idaho Rivers United v. Probert, No. 3:16-CV-00102-CWD, 2016 WL 2757690, at *6 (D. Idaho May 12, 2016). While courts are given considerable discretion in deciding whether a preliminary injunction should enter, injunctive relief is not obtained as a matter of right and it is considered to be an extraordinary remedy that should not be granted unless the movant, by a clear showing, carries the burden of persuasion. See Sampson v. Murray, 415 U.S. 61 (1974); Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers v. Missouri-Kansas-Texas R. Co., 363 U.S. 528 (1960); and Stanley v. Univ. of S. California, 13 F.3d 1313 (9th Cir. 1994), cited in Idaho Rivers United, 2016 WL 2757690 at *6.

         A plaintiff seeking preliminary injunctive relief must establish (1) a likelihood of success on the merits; (2) a likelihood of suffering irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary injunctive relief; (3) that the balance of equities is in plaintiff's favor; and (4) that the injunction is in the public interest. Winter, 555 U.S. at 7. The plaintiff must show suffering irreparable harm is likely, and not just a possibility. Id. A court must consider each factor and balance the parties' competing claims of injury by considering the potential effects of the injunction on each party. In the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, issuance of a preliminary injunction is favored when the merits analysis and hardship balance both tip strongly toward the plaintiff, so long as the plaintiff shows also that there is “a likelihood of irreparable injury and that the injunction is in the public interest.” Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. Cottrell, 632 F.3d 1127, 1135 (9th Cir. 2011).


         1. Merits of Plaintiffs' Claim That the Trail Project Exceeds the Scope of the Conservation Easement (Count Four)

         Plaintiffs purchased the Property in 2016 subject to a deed restriction granting a conservation easement to the United States. Defendants assert that Plaintiffs fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, because Count Four is not brought pursuant to the Quiet Title Act (“QTA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2409a. Defendants explain that the QTA is the “exclusive means by which adverse claimants can challenge the United States' claim to real property.” Block v. North Dakota ex. Rel. Bd. of Univ. & Sch. Lands, 461 U.S. 273, 286 (1983); Robinson v. United States, 586 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2009) (“This court has repeatedly held that both disputes over the right to an easement and suits seeking a declaration as to the scope of an easement fall within the purview of the QTA.”). Defendants assert that, even if the complaint is amended to include a claim under the QTA, Plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction is precluded by 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(c), which provides that, “[n]o preliminary injunction shall issue in any action brought under this section.” Defendants are correct, as explained below.

         Prior to 1972, real property disputes could not be litigated against the United States unless the government initiated suit. Block, 461 U.S. at 280. Congress waived sovereign immunity in the QTA, thereby allowing real property owners to bring suits against the government challenging the United States' interests. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(f) (providing that the district courts “shall have original jurisdiction of civil actions under section 2409a to quiet title to an estate or interest in real property in which an interest is claimed by the United States”).

         For the Court to have jurisdiction under the QTA, two prerequisites must be met: (1) the United States must claim an interest in the property at issue; and (2) there must be a disputed title to real property. Leisnoi, Inc. v. United States, 170 F.3d 1188, 1191 (9th Cir. 1999). If the Court finds the QTA applies, Block prohibits a party from seeking to “subvert the limitations in the QTA by basing preliminary injunctive relief on the APA….” City of Tombstone v. United States, No. CV11-845-TUC-FRZ, 2012 WL 12842257 (D. Az. May 14, 2012) (and cases cited). See also McMaster v. United States, 731 F.3d 881, 899 & n.13 (9th Cir. 2013) (explaining that the “QTA provides the exclusive remedy for claims involving adverse title disputes with the government, ” and rejecting the plaintiff's argument that the APA provided a basis to contest the government's claim to real property).

         Plaintiffs urge the Court to find the QTA does not apply. Plaintiffs rely upon a statement in Robinson v. United States, wherein the Ninth Circuit stated that, when a suit does not “challenge title but instead concerns the use of land as to which title is not disputed [the matter] can sound in tort or contract and not come within the scope of the QTA.” 586 F.3d at 688. They argue this dispute does not challenge the United States' title to the easement, but rather challenges the intended use of the land. While the quoted statement taken out of context may support Plaintiffs' argument, the facts in Robinson do not.

         The key factual distinction in Robinson, and the basis for its holding, lies in the type of claim asserted and the relationship of the landowners involved in the dispute. In that case, the Robinsons acquired 620 acres subject to an easement over Parcels 2, 3, and 4 of the same. A road was later built across Parcels 2, 3, and 4, which connected several other parcels with local roads. Parcels 2, 3, and 4 were then sold to the Maidu Indian Tribe. The Tribe thereafter conveyed the three parcels, subject to the easement, to the United States to hold in trust for the Tribe. The Tribe constructed homes and a casino on one of the two parcels. The Robinsons, who still owned the acreage, filed suit against the United States, alleging that an unshored slope caused subsidence and that a curb, concrete walkway, wrought iron fence, and fire hydrant encroached onto the easement. The complaint alleged disruption of lateral and subjacent support, negligence, and nuisance.

         The government filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that the suit was governed by the QTA, which in turn would have precluded the Robinson's suit because the QTA precludes suits against the government involving land held in trust for Native American tribes. The Robinsons argued the QTA did not apply to their suit, because their action was not one to quiet title; rather, they alleged tort claims falling within the purview of the Federal Tort Claims Act.

         The Ninth Circuit reiterated its longstanding precedent that “disputes over the right to an easement and suits seeking a declaration as to the scope of an easement fall within the purview of the QTA.” Id. at 686. But, it left room for the Robinsons' suit outside of the QTA, holding:

We adopt a pragmatic approach and conclude that a suit that actually challenges the federal government's title, however denominated, falls within the scope of the QTA regardless of the remedy sought. To hold otherwise would merely allow parties to avoid the limitations of the QTA by raising contract or tort claims. At the same time, a suit that does not challenge title but instead concerns the use of land as to which title is not disputed can sound in tort or contract and not come within the scope of the QTA.

Id. at 688.

         Turning to the facts before it, the court concluded that the parties did not dispute “the intended use of the easement, ” but rather that the Tribe's use of the land interfered with the easement. Id. at 688. Accordingly, the court held that the suit did not result in adjudication of title to the easement, and the Robinsons' suit properly sounded in tort, as alleged. Id.[7]

         In contrast to Robinson, it is clear that the QTA applies here. The United States owns an easement in land for which Plaintiffs own the servient estate, and the parties dispute the scope of that easement. Id. at 686; Kootenai Canyon Ranch, Inc. v. U.S. Forest Serv., 338 F.Supp.2d 1129, 1133 (D. Mont. 2004) (recognizing that the QTA was the exclusive means by which a landowner could challenge the scope of the government's interest in an easement). Plaintiffs do not allege the Defendants' proposed use of the land interferes with the easement. Rather, Plaintiffs repeatedly assert that the type of trail, and the extent of construction described in the Decision Memo, was not contemplated by the easement. Plaintiffs' argument squarely concerns the scope of the easement, or the “bundle of sticks, ”[8] conveyed to the United States.

         Plaintiffs' attempt to differentiate their claim is unavailing. Contrary to Plaintiffs' assertions, they are challenging the scope of the easement, because trails can be of many different types. See, e.g., Decl. of Donovan Ex. E, F. (Dkt. 11-3.)[9] For instance, a twelve-inch wide singletrack trail contemplates an entirely different use and scope than an asphalt paved greenbelt trail. Yet both fall within the broad definition of a trail. Id. Accordingly, because the claim directly affects the bundle of sticks conveyed to the United States, the claim falls within the parameters of the QTA.

         District courts interpreting Robinson with facts similar to those before the Court are in accord with the above conclusion. For instance, in Beasley v. United States, the court distinguished the action before it from Robinson. No. CV-12-3136-LRS, 2013 WL 1832653, at *3 (E.D. Wash. May 1, 2013).[10] There, the government owned an easement for use of a road across the plaintiff's property. The Forest Service operated the road during the winter as a recreation trail, allowing snow machines to travel across it from the trail head of one of the largest snow parks in the state, and therefore the Forest Service closed the road to other traffic during the winter. The plaintiffs contested the government's closure rules.

         The court in Beasley held that the facts before it were distinguishable from Robinson, because the plaintiff maintained “not merely that the use of his land by the United States has interfered with his rights as reserved in the Easement, but that said use is beyond the scope of the ‘intended use of the easement.'” 2013 WL 1832653, at *3. Accordingly, the court concluded that, “because there is a dispute as to the scope of that Easement, the exclusive basis for subject matter jurisdiction is the QTA.” 2013 WL 1832653, at *4 (citing Kootenai Canyon Ranch, 338 F.Supp.2d at 113). See also City of North Las Vegas v. Clark County, Nev., 2011 WL 3472481 at *6 (D. Nev. 2011) (citing Robinson, the court noted that “[a] dispute over the existence or scope of an easement will satisfy the requirement that there be a dispute over title to real property.”); Larson v. United States, No. 4:13CV3081, 2014 WL 12539647, at *9 (D. Neb. July 28, 2014) (holding the QTA was the exclusive means by which the plaintiffs could challenge the scope of the easement granted to the United States, denying the plaintiff's claims under the APA).

         In another case following Robinson and cited by Defendants, the District Court in Arizona was faced with a motion for a preliminary injunction filed by the City of Tombstone against the Forest Service. In City of Tombstone v. United States, the City argued that officials were hindering its efforts to make necessary repairs to water sources located in the Huachuca Mountain Wilderness Area. No. CV-11-00845-TUC-FRZ, 2015 WL 11120851, at *2 (D. Ariz. Mar. 12, 2015). The City asserted its rights pursuant to an easement, or ownership of a right-of-way, on federal land, claiming it was entitled to relief under the APA, the Tenth Amendment, and the QTA. However, the City requested preliminary injunctive relief on the merits pursuant to the APA and Tenth Amendment only.

         The court held that the City could not “make an end-run around the limitations of the QTA which prohibit preliminary injunctive relief.” 2012 WL 12842257 at 2. The court included a laundry list of cases holding that the QTA provided the exclusive remedy to challenge the United States' title to real property. Id. at *3. Because the suit implicated questions of title, the court concluded that the City's claims under the APA and Tenth Amendment failed at the preliminary injunction stage, “as any such claims must be brought under the QTA which precludes the preliminary relief Plaintiff seeks in this case.” Id.[11]

         And, although decided prior to Robinson, the holding by the District Court for the District of Montana in Kootenai Canyon Ranch is instructive. There, the plaintiff's predecessor in interest granted a right-of-way easement to the United States Forest Service in 1965. The plaintiff, who purchased the property in 1991, sued the Forest Service seeking a declaration that it had abandoned part of the easement, and that the government had no right to construct improvements on the easement property. The Forest Service had historically maintained a road, an animal loading ramp, parking area, hitching rail, bulletin board, and an outhouse on the property. But in 2000, the Forest Service notified the plaintiff it intended to improve the trailhead facilities, install a concrete outhouse, improve the parking area, and install fencing. The plaintiff argued that the easement was for a road only, and that the ...

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