A court recently found that the Forest Service’s approval of a special use permittee’s master development plan (MDP) was not a final decision that required any NEPA analysis. The court’s conclusion was based on its determination that approval of the MDP did not commit the Forest Service to allow any of the development proposed under the plan. The court also agreed with the Forest Service that a specific mountain bike trail and skills area project approved under the MDP, if completed, would not have any significant impacts on the environment, and therefore no environmental impact statement (EIS) was required.
Plaintiffs alleged that the Forest Service’s mere acceptance of the MDP constituted a “major federal action” that subjected the decision to a NEPA analysis. Plaintiffs thus argue that the Forest Service violated NEPA by failing to solicit public comment and analyze the environmental effects of the MDP. However, the Forest Service argued that its “acceptance” of the MDP did not constitute “approval” for projects identified in the plan. The court agreed with the Forest Service, holding that the MDP simply identified the permittee’s vision for future developments and that subsequent approval of individual project components would first require appropriate NEPA analysis. While the plaintiffs asserted that all parties benefit when a conceptual plan is subjected to NEPA review, the court noted that “more NEPA analysis is not necessarily better” if an agency expends scarce resources to review hypothetical projects “that may never be proposed or authorized.”