Cass County District Court File No. C201616
Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and
Under the Minnesota Environmental Protection Act, an environmental assessment worksheet must be prepared when twenty-five or more individual petitioners provide material evidence that a proposed project has the potential for significant environmental effects. For purposes of this requirement, a project is a definite, site-specific action that contemplates on-the-ground environmental changes including changes in the nature of the existing use.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lansing, Judge
Affirmed in part and reversed in part
In a declaratory-relief action, the district court granted summary judgment for Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation (MRR) and ordered the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to complete environmental assessment worksheets (EAWs) on four off-highway vehicle (OHV) system plans developed by the DNR. The DNR and the two intervenors, the All Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota (ATVAM) and the Minnesota 4-Wheel Drive Association (M4WDA), argue on appeal that the system plans are not projects as defined by Minn. R. 4410.0200, subp. 65 (2001), and therefore are not subject to environmental review. We conclude that although the system plans themselves are not projects, eight individual trails identified in the affidavits attached to the petitions and discussed in the system plans are definite, site-specific actions that contemplate on-the-ground environmental changes and therefore constitute projects subject to environmental review. We affirm in part and reverse in part.
MRR is a non-profit organization with the declared purpose to "advocate for the restoration, protection, and preservation of peace and quiet and a healthy environment on Minnesota's trails and waterways for future generations." ATVAM is a non-profit corporation with the stated purpose of protecting "its interest in the successful and timely implementation of OHV trail systems." M4WDA is a nonprofit organization that has a stated purpose "to promote responsible, safe, and enjoyable use of 4-wheel drive vehicles." The DNR is the state administrative agency charged with protecting and managing Minnesota's natural resources.
In June 2000, the DNR made available for review by the public four system plans for potential OHV trails in the forests of several Minnesota counties. The four plans were divided into one single and three aggregated county units: (1) Aitkin; (2) Pine and Southern Carlton; (3) Wadena, Southern Cass, and Crow Wing; and (4) Kanabec and Mille Lacs. Each system plan addressed several potential trails, extensions of existing trails, and connections of existing trails for off-road vehicles (ORV), all-terrain vehicles (ATV), and off-highway motorcycles (OHM). More than thirty potential trails, connections, and extensions were identified in the four plans. None of the system plans contained a detailed assessment of the potential environmental impact of developing the trails, extensions, or connections.
The system plans also proposed continuing a DNR-initiated, rule-based forest classification system that had been implemented on an interim basis in 1998 and made permanent in 2000. See Minn. R. 6100.1950 (2001). This forest classification system categorized all state forests as managed, limited, or closed, designating the degree to which motorized vehicle use is permitted on state forest roads and trails. Minn. R. 6100.1950, subps. 1, 2.
After the system plans were made available for public review, MRR filed four petitions under Minn. Stat. § 116D.04, subd. 2a(c) (2000) with the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB), requesting that the DNR complete EAWs for each of the system plans. An EAW is a brief document setting out "the basic facts necessary to determine" if further, more detailed environmental review is required for a proposed action. Minn. Stat. § 116D.04, subd. 1(c) (2000).
In its petitions, MRR stated that the OHV planning process detailed in the system plans had the potential for significant negative effects to soil, water, and air, and that all four system plans formed part of a "connected action" with numerous other plans for OHV use being developed around the state. MRR attached to its petitions the affidavits of an environmental scientist and a professor emeritus of fisheries and stream ecology at the University of Minnesota, who together identified nine trails, extensions, and connections that posed significant risks of adverse environmental effects. These nine trails and connections are: (1) the connection of the Yellow Birch to the Willard Munger and Gandy Dancer trails; (2) the connection of the Continental Divide trail to the Willard Munger and Gandy Dancer trails; (3) the development of the Chengwatana trail; (4) changes in the permitted use of the Willard Munger trail; (5) the development of the Snake River trail; (6) the development of the Woodland ORV trail; (7) changes in the permitted use of the Moose River trail; (8) the development of the Spider Lake trail; and (9) the development of a loop trail connecting to the Crosby trail.
The EQB designated the DNR as the governmental unit responsible for determining if environmental review was warranted. The DNR issued four records of decision in which it concluded that because the system plans were not yet sufficiently developed to constitute projects as defined by Minnesota rules, no environmental review was required. The DNR stated that the system plans lacked site-level planning and imminent implementation, both of which are prerequisites to effective environmental review. The DNR indicated that it would keep on file for one year the petitions for Pine and Southern Carlton; Kanabec and Mille Lacs; and Wadena, Southern Cass, and Crow Wing counties and reactivate them in the event that a project is proposed that is identified in, or similar to, the projects identified in the petitions. See Minn. R. 4410.1100, subp. 9, .3100, subp. 1(A) (2001). The DNR also ...