In the absence of evidence that an agency seriously considered environmental impacts prior to making its decision, violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 4331-35, cannot be considered harmless.
Plaintiff environmental groups appealed a summary judgment from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia in favor of defendants, the National Park Service (Service) and federal and state officials, in the group's complaint seeking to enjoin the Service's practice of using 15-passenger vans to transport visitors across the designated wilderness area on Cumberland Island, Georgia. The designated wilderness area encompassed two historical sites. The groups claimed that transportation of visitors across the wilderness area violated the Wilderness Act, 16 U.S.C.S. § 1131-36 (Act.) The Service argued that it needed motorized access to the sites to meet its obligations to curate historic resources and that "piggybacking" of tourists on Service personnel trips yielded no net increase in environmental impact. Summary judgment was reversed.
Whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment?
Under 16 U.S.C.S. § 1133(c), motor vehicle use was restricted to a level necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area. The court found that the need to preserve historical structures did not further the goals of the Act. Use of a passenger van changed the wilderness experience. Congress unambiguously prohibited the Service from offering motorized transportation to park visitors through the wilderness area. The Service's reliance on the categorical exclusion for "routine and continuing government business" was misguided because it did not apply. Further, the Service failed to consider the environmental impacts before making its decision contrary to the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 4331-35.