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As many of you know, we’ve renovated our kealliance.org website and we’ve migrated this blog over to its new, permanent location at kealliance.org/blog.  We’re still working out the kinks, and we’ll still post at both site for the next week or so, but we hope to complete the transition soon.

We encourage you to point your browsers and update your feeds to the new location. Also, if you like having the posts delivered to you via email, you’ll need to re-subscribe to the new blog. The subscription box is at the very bottom of our homepage. Thanks for bearing with us on this, but we think it’ll be much better for all of us at the new site.

 

 

 

We’re moving all of our blog activity — and you should move your feeds and subscriptions to the new site at http://kealliance.org/blog.  (Email subscriptions are available at the bottom of the home page.)

We’re telling you this because you’re missing new posts on the Bonner County Property Rights Council’s continuing problems with drinking water protections and on a new study regarding the dike road trees.

 

Don’t forget, we’ve moved the blog to a new, permanent location at kealliance.org/blog. You’ll want to point your browsers and update your feeds to the new location as we will discontinue this site soon.

Also, if you like having the posts delivered to you via email, you’ll need to re-subscribe to the new blog. The subscription box is at the very bottom of our homepage

In our continuing efforts to move your attention to the new blog, we announce that a new post is now available there that will not be available here. Click over to Save the Selkirk Caribou to read it.

 

Don’t forget, we’ve moved the blog to a new, permanent location at kealliance.org/blog. You’ll want to point your browsers and update your feeds to the new location as we will discontinue this site soon. Also, if you like having the posts delivered to you via email, you’ll need to re-subscribe to the new blog. The subscription box is at the very bottom of our homepage

After several months of study and discussion, tonight (Monday) the City of Coeur d’Alene’s Parks and Recreation Commission will officially consider a consensus recommendation to retrofit a Tubbs Hill trail to accommodate wheelchair accessibility.

Last spring, the City Council separated Tubbs Hill from the McEuen Park project and formed a task force to take a comprehensive look at Tubbs Hill trails. The task force, which included representatives from the Tubbs Hill Foundation, KEA, and the disability community, met through the fall. At the final meeting in December, the group unanimously agreed to recommend that the existing east side trail become the first wheelchair-accessible trail on Tubbs Hill. Meanwhile, the task force also unanimously recommended that any further consideration of a new, north-side trail, be tabled until the east-side trail is completed.

Meanwhile, although routes across the north side of Tubbs Hill were also reviewed for feasibility, the task force decided to postpone any further consideration of the north side until the east side was completed. With feasibility less certain, with aesthetic concerns more acute, and with still-uncertain connections to the rest of the trail system and McEuen Park, the task force thought it more prudent to drop further consideration for the time being. Indeed, the work on the east side is likely to inform any future decision-making for the north side, and the City would do well to learn from the east side experience first before constructing something new.

The existing East Tubbs Trail originates at the parking lot on 10th street, follows the lake above the marina, and intersects the main trail. With relatively simple and inexpensive retrofits at several points along the way, the trail would be wheelchair accessible out to marker #14 or so. As able-bodied hikers already know, the trail provides excellent views of the Lake through a nice forest canopy.  As part of the project, surface smoothness, trail width, uphill and downhill slopes, cross-slopes and trail widths along the way would be constructed or reconstructed, if necessary, to accommodate accessibility standards. Based on a fairly detailed segment-by-segment feasibility review, and a site-visit last summer, it appears that the accommodation can be done with relatively minimal reconstruction and expense.

The Parks Board will take up the task force recommendation at its meeting tonight at 5:30 at the Coeur d’Alene Library and will forward a recommendation to the City Council.

 

An opinion piece published in the Spokesman-Review sheds some additional light on the Sackett case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

As we’ve written before, the Supreme Court is only deciding a procedural point about how and when the Sacketts can challenge an EPA wetlands determination. Even if the Sacketts win their Supreme Court case, they could still lose their challenge when both sides put their facts before a judge.  Indeed, based on the Spokesman-Review piece, the Sacketts may face an uphill battle.

In the Spokesman-Review, Michael Doherty, a retired biologist and wetland regulator with the Corps of Engineers writes fairly directly:

“I drove by the property in question for decades and know it is a wetland. It was frequently covered with standing water, soils were saturated, and it was covered with plants common to wetlands in the area. These are the three criteria used to identify wetlands under federal guidelines, and the property meets them all.

Beyond the science, an average person would see it is located at the bottom end of a large drainage and is very wet. Yet they claim the lot is not a wetland. So why did they need to haul fill with dump trucks for three days to prepare it for construction of their house?

The $23,000 price for two-thirds of an acre lot located less than 100 yards from the shore of Priest Lake speaks volumes. The typical price of vacant Priest Lake property is much higher and points to the substandard nature of the property as a home site. As excavation contractors, the Sacketts were amply equipped to fill the lot and prepare it for building.”

The wetland shows up in the USFWS wetland inventory. The Sacketts’ own consultant said it was likely a wetland. (Until they changed consultants, of course.)  Just because the property contains a wetland doesn’t necessarily mean that the EPA and the Corps of Engineers have jurisdiction.  But these facts and circumstances are obviously not very helpful to the Sacketts when the case comes back to Idaho after its trip to Washington, DC.

Doherty writes:

“Though portrayed as such, this is not a case of the Sacketts versus a big government fabricating a case against them. The EPA does not fabricate cases because there are wetland violations all around us, and only the most egregious are pursued. The facts of any case are analyzed and reviewed by managers and attorneys and, if weak, it does not go forward to any enforcement action, let alone to administrative orders with possible legal action. The analysis includes impact to private property rights as well because taking private property without just compensation is illegal and the government looks very carefully at this issue before making any regulatory decisions.”

Indeed, as the adage goes: When the law is not on your side, you argue the facts; when the facts are not on your side, you argue the law.  The Sacketts have been arguing the law fairly effectively. As this piece points out however, the facts have yet to be heard.

 

By most accounts, it was a tough day for EPA in the Supreme Court on Monday. Although the Sacketts got their share of skepticism from the Justices, the EPA really took it on the chin during the oral argument of the Priest Lake wetland case.


KEA joined several other conservation organizations in a brief 
to point out that the Sacketts had ample opportunity to work with EPA and the Corps of Engineers to avoid the compliance order, and unnecessary expense, had they chosen to do so.

The issue before the court was whether a “compliance order” issued by EPA to the Sacketts for a Clean Water Act violation is immediately reviewable in a court. The Sacketts, who claim that their property has no wetlands and are therefore not under Clean Water Act jurisdiction, argued that there is no easy way to challenge EPA’s compliance order determination that a wetland exists. Moreover, they say, tough Clean Water Act penalties can accrue at a substantial rate. EPA, meanwhile, argues that the Clean Water Act doesn’t provide for an early hearing. Besides, the Sacketts would eventually get their day in court one way or another, and if EPA couldn’t prove their case, there’d ultimately be no penalties.

At the oral argument, the Supreme Court seemed openly skeptical about the compliance order. Rather than viewing it as a notice, or a warning, which would be followed by an EPA enforcement action, the Justices seemed inclined to consider it an action in and of itself. As such, they hinted that it was a “final” agency decision which should be subject to Court review.

However, Justices were also skeptical of the Sacketts’ argument that they should receive a hearing regarding the compliance order, but also if they were to lose on the wetland jurisdiction issue in the early hearing, they should get another chance to argue their case in a later enforcement case brought by EPA. In other words, EPA would have to prove their wetland case twice.

All of which goes to the real importance of the case. Enforcement of the Clean Water Act is difficult enough for EPA, which is already stretched thin. Compliance orders are designed to be a tool to shortcut formal proceedings – to provide violators with a less formal (and usually less expensive) route to compliance, without going to court and assuming all the risks and expenses that entails. If the Supreme Court finds that EPA’s compliance orders trigger additional hearings or other formalities, it will seriously impact the way Clean Water Act enforcement gets done.

Court watchers and EPA watchers are already speculating as to what EPA might do if the Supreme Court rules for the Sacketts. One guess is that the compliance orders may become less “order-like” and more “warning-ish.” A mere warning, everyone agrees, is not reviewable in Court. Would things be significantly better for the Sacketts if they had received a warning about a Clean Water Act violation as opposed to the compliance order they received? Doubtful. It could, however, delay the actual enforcement of obvious violations, which would also delay cleanup and restoration efforts.

Another guess, and most worrisome to conservation groups, is that EPA will abandon administrative processes and go directly to enforcement actions filed in court. Because of the complexity and expense of doing so, EPA might simply do less enforcement – which could be devastating for the country’s waterways.

Congress, of course, could fix all of this by clarifying what constitutes a wetland, and clarifying procedures. But that isn’t likely to happen any time soon with the current Congress. The Supreme Court’s decision is expected sometime this spring.

 

We’ll probably have more on this later today or tomorrow, but for those interested in how it went at the Supreme Court today, our friends at Center for Justice have posted the transcript of the oral argument. (Spoiler Alert: the EPA seemed to have a pretty tough day.)

Regardless of the outcome of the case, and regardless of how you feel about wetlands enforcement, the EPA, or anything else — the nation’s highest court is an awesome and impressive thing.  We’re extremely honored to take part.

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to allow filing of an amicus brief in the Sackett v. EPA case which will be argued at the Court on Monday morning. (The Supreme Court’s order (pdf) is here.)  The brief is being filed on behalf of NRDC, the Waterkeeper Alliance, Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper, and Kootenai Environmental Alliance.

 

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