Weyerhaeuser Company v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service is one of the few unanimous decisions of the US Supreme Court on environmental matters.
The case is set in Louisiana, in a region that was once home to the endangered dusky gopher frogs (although they have not lived there for +50 years). US Fish and Wildlife Services deemed the area a “critical habitat” for endangered frogs under Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act, although the frogs could not inhabit the area without “some degree of modification” including replacement of the timber plantation with a different type of tree. The District Court upheld the Fish and Wildlife Services’ designation of “critical habitat” and a divided Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals did as well. However, the US Supreme Court returned the case to the Court of Appeal for reconsideration, as an area can be designated a “critical habitat” only if it in fact a habitat for that species.
One of the more interesting aspects of the case is how it addresses judicial deference to an agency’s interpretation of the statute. The Supreme Court rejected the 5th Circuit’s ruling that this decision was unreviewable under Section 701(a)(2) of the Administrative Procedure Act because it was “committed to agency discretion by law.” Instead of judicial deference, the Court focused on judicial review of administrative action—arguing that Fish and Wildlife Services’ designation was reviewable because it relied on a narrow reading of statute and did not consider the limits of agencies’ discretion. The Supreme Court’s opinion could have a substantial impact on the 35-year old Chevron doctrine of judicial deference to federal agencies, which affects all areas of environmental law.
Fish and Wildlife Services designated the area as “critical habitat,” after considering the potential economic impact of its designation—the designation could cost a maximum of $33.9 million to private landowners in lost development value. However, Fish and Wildlife Services determined that the conservation benefits outweighed the cost of losing the region (and its high quality ephemeral ponds) as critical habitat. Thus, the Supreme Court’s ruling falls in favour of landowners and developers, including companies in timber products and energy industries. The decision limits the areas that can be designated as critical habitat, by requiring the Service to first find that an area is “habitat.” The ruling also opens the door for private parties to challenge the Service’s cost-benefit analyses underlying critical habitat designations.
This post was written by a CCLA-PBSC Rights Watch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.