(CN) – Environmentalists’ claims that grazing cattle decimated rare cacti in the Capital Reef National Park is a local dispute that belongs in the Beehive State rather than Washington, D.C., a federal judge ruled.
In granting a motion to transfer the case filed by Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel and the National Park Service, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper said on Tuesday that he was merely following the “well-worn path of other courts.”
He cited similar rulings over the past decade, in which three separate cases were transferred by courts in his district to Utah.
The co-plaintiffs in the case, the Western Watersheds Project and Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, say cows feeding in the national park “endangering the existence” of two species of rare cacti, Sclerocactus wrightiae and Pediocactus winkleri.
The grazing, they say, violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Administrative Procedure Act and Endangered Species Act.
In their motion to transfer the case to Utah, Secretary Jewel and NPS argued Capitol Reef National Park, local NPS offices responsible for the park, the cacti, and the administrative record were all located in the state.
The defendants added that transferring the case would not inconvenience the parties, given WWP is based in Idaho and Cottonwood is located in Montana.
The plaintiffs opposed the motion, however, claiming the issues at hand “carry national significance,” that transferring would prejudice their interests, and that the District of Columbia-based court could resolve the case “efficiently” because the average judge’s docket in the district was “quantitatively smaller” than in Utah.
But Judge Cooper was unconvinced by this line of argument.
“In a very similar recent case brought by WWP, a fellow court in this district considered a motion to change venue to the District of Utah and concluded that ‘on balance, the private and public interest factors weigh in favor of transfer.’ This court concludes likewise,” Cooper wrote. “As in that case, ‘deference to plaintiffs’ choice of forum is diminished because the District of Columbia has no meaningful ties to the controversy, and ‘perhaps [the] most important factor – the interest in having local controversies decided at home’ [-] tips strongly in favor of transfer.”
Cooper added, pointedly, that the co-plaintiffs proximity to Utah district court, in downtown Salt Lake City, necessitated a move of the “discrete dispute.”
“While WWP and Cottonwood may genuinely believe this discrete dispute possesses national significance, neither plaintiff is located in the District of Columbia and, as Secretary Jewell and NPS note, Capitol Reef National Park, the local NPS offices responsible for Capitol Reef, the administrative record, and the two species of cacti themselves are located in Utah,” the 5-page ruling states.
Cooper added that alleged “congestion” in Utah did not allow for the case to remain in the nation’s capital.
“The sole factor that perhaps militates in favor of maintaining venue in this district is the relative congestion of the two districts, as the District of Utah had ‘more pending cases per judgeship than the District of Columbia’ as of 2013,” Cooper wrote. “Putting aside the possibility that the relative complexity of the two courts’ dockets may not be reflected in this purely mathematical statistic, this one factor, on its own, does not outweigh all of the others. Accordingly, the court will follow the well-worn path of other courts in this district and grant defendants’ motion.” (Citation omitted.)
Nonprofits Western Watersheds Project and Cottonwood Environmental Law Center aim to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds, including endangered species.
Capital Reef National Park, located in south-central Utah and established in 1971, is highlighted by colorful sandstone cliffs.
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