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In a victory for wildlife habitat in the Sierra Nevada, a federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Forest Service failed in its management of forest trails created by off-road vehicles in the Stanislaus National Forest. The court decision released on Friday stated that the Travel Management Plan (TMP) violated federal law because it did not minimize damage to the environment caused by off-road vehicles.
U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller ordered a hearing on February 15th to consider remedies for the illegal TMP.
"The Forest Service squandered an important opportunity to finally do something about highly destructive impacts caused by off-road vehicles in the Stanislaus Forest," commented Erin Tobin, attorney for the public interest law firm Earthjustice. "This decision confirms that the Forest Service needs to do a better job of protecting the forest and its streams and wildlife from these damaging machines."
Conservation groups took legal action in August 2010 to stop Forest Service approval of 137 miles of unauthorized off-road vehicle routes - many of which cause environmental harm in the Stanislaus National Forest. The suit sought to block a significant expansion of motorized trails that often damage streams and habitat for rare species. Among the affected wildlife are California spotted owls, northern goshawks, and western pond turtles, the only species of turtle native to California. The newly authorized routes would have allowed noisy off-road vehicles to enter 55 separate "protected activity centers" that the Forest Service had previously established to protect spotted owls and goshawks while they are nesting and raising young.
"We recognize the importance of balancing the desires of off-highway-vehicle advocates with the needs of the vast majority of forest visitors who seek quiet recreation and want appropriate protection of water and wildlife resources," said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. "Now we hope that all parties can work cooperatively to come up with a revised plan that steers off-road vehicles to those specific areas of the national forest where they cause the least resource impacts and the least conflict with non-motorized recreational visitors."
The Stanislaus is a popular forest destination area in the Sierra Nevada, offering exceptional opportunities for hiking, camping, backpacking, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing. In the 1970s, Presidents Nixon and Carter ordered the Forest Service to better protect plants, water, and wildlife from off-road vehicles and to close areas damaged by off-road vehicles. However, Forest Service officials delayed complying with those and numerous other legal mandates until finally approving a still-inadequate plan in November 2009. That plan is the focus of the legal ruling.
The court did not order closing of any specific off-road vehicle trails, but will consider in a future proceeding what the appropriate remedy should be to rectify the Forest Service's violations of law. But the court ruling does side with the conservation groups in finding that the Forest Service failed to affirmatively take steps to minimize damage caused by off-road vehicle trails, as required by law.
"Off-highway vehicle users have already illegally created more than one hundred miles of unapproved motorcycle and all-terrain-vehicle routes in the forest," said Karen Schambach, California Director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). "The Stanislaus management plan would have rewarded those destructive activities that cut across streams and slice through winter deer range and other key wildlife areas. A new look at the plan offers a new chance to fix this problem."
Earthjustice represented The Wilderness Society, the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (CSERC), and PEER in the lawsuit.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.
"The Supreme Court's decision brings the people of Delaware and Hoboken one step closer to putting these polluters on trial and making them pay for their climate deception."
On the heels of similar decisions last month, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday delivered "another win for climate accountability," rejecting fossil fuel corporations' attempt to quash lawsuits filed by the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, and the state of Delaware.
Both filed in September 2020, the suits from Hoboken and Delaware—like those filed by dozens of other municipalities and states—take aim at companies including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell for fueling the climate emergency. The fossil fuel industry has repeatedly tried to evade accountability by shifting such cases from state to federal court.
"We appreciate and agree with the court's order denying the fossil fuel companies' petition, which aligns with dozens of decisions in federal courts here in Delaware and across the country," said Democratic Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings in response to Monday's decision.
The Supreme Court's decision means that both of these cases will now move forward in state court.
Jennings on Monday cited an opinion piece she wrote for Delaware Online with Shawn Garvin, secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, back when they launched the legal effort in 2020:
As we stated at the time of filing this case almost three years ago: "It didn't have to be this way. The fossil fuel industry knew for decades that their products would lead to climate change with potentially 'severe' and even 'catastrophic' consequences—their words, not ours. But they didn't clean up their practices or warn anyone to minimize the peril they were creating. Instead, they spent decades deliberately and systematically deceiving the nation about what they knew would happen if they carried on with business as usual."
Building on revelations from the past decade that have bolstered climate liability lawsuits, peer-reviewed research published in January shows that ExxonMobil accurately predicted global heating decades ago, while documents released in early April make clear that Shell knew about the impact of fossil fuels even earlier than previously thought.
"Imagine how far along we might be in the transition to a low-carbon economy today if not for their deception," Jennings said. "That's why we filed our lawsuit, and today's order moves Delawareans one step closer to the justice and economic relief that we deserve."
For Hoboken and Delaware, the high court denied fossil fuel companies' challenge to decision last year from a panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which wrote in part that "our federal system trusts state courts to hear most cases—even big, important ones that raise federal defenses. Plaintiffs choose which claims to file, in which court, and under which law. Defendants may prefer federal court, but they may not remove their cases to federal court unless federal laws let them. Here, they do not."
Center for Climate Integrity president Richard Wiles noted Monday that "Big Oil companies keep fighting to avoid trials in state courts, where they will be forced to defend their record of climate lies and destruction in front of juries, but federal courts at every level keep rejecting their efforts."
"The Supreme Court's decision brings the people of Delaware and Hoboken one step closer to putting these polluters on trial and making them pay for their climate deception," Wiles added. "Fossil fuel companies must be held accountable for the damages they knowingly caused."
After the high court's April decisions—which involved cases brought by the state of Rhode Island as well as municipalities across California, Colorado, Hawaii, and Maryland—Jamie Henn of Fossil Free Media said, "This should open the floodgates for more lawsuits that could make polluters pay!"
There were no noted dissensions on Monday. However, like last month, Justice Samuel Alito, who owns stock in some fossil fuel companies, did not participate in the decision about these two cases—but Justice Amy Coney Barrett, whose father spent nearly three decades as an attorney for Shell, did.
"Americans overwhelmingly prefer raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy and huge corporations to making cuts to critical programs like healthcare, medical research, and infrastructure," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The United States' astronomical levels of economic inequality are poised to become further entrenched in the coming years as what The New York Timesdescribed Sunday as "the greatest wealth transfer in history" gets underway, with the richest members of the Baby Boomer generation set to pass trillions of dollars in assets on to their descendants—often paying little or nothing in taxes.
"Most will leave behind thousands of dollars, a home, or not much at all. Others are leaving their heirs hundreds of thousands, or millions, or billions of dollars in various assets," the Times reported. "Of the $84 trillion projected to be passed down from older Americans to millennial and Gen X heirs through 2045, $16 trillion will be transferred within the next decade."
The newspaper added that thanks to the loophole-ridden U.S. tax system, "heirs increasingly don't need to wait for the passing of elders to directly benefit from family money, a result of the bursting popularity of 'giving while living'—including property purchases, repeated tax-free cash transfers of estate money, and more—providing millions a head start."
"The trillions of dollars going to heirs will largely reinforce inequality," the Times observed. "The wealthiest 10% of households will be giving and receiving a majority of the riches. Within that range, the top 1%—which holds about as much wealth as the bottom 90%, and is predominantly white—will dictate the broadest share of the money flow. The more diverse bottom 50% of households will account for only 8% of the transfers."
\u201c1/Months in the making, here's the final cut of my story on the long-awaited wealth transfer, no longer in the future tense:\nWe're closer to 2053 than 1992.\nElites are already disbursing to heirs while alive.\nThe masses likely need luck or a paradigm shift\nhttps://t.co/FDKNafpCyV\u201d— talmon joseph smith (@talmon joseph smith) 1684087876
Don Moynihan, a professor at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy, argued that the Times analysis further demonstrates that "we are not taxing the very wealthy enough."
The Times noted that individuals in the U.S. can pass nearly $13 million in assets to heirs without paying the federal estate tax, which only applies to around two of every 1,000 American estates.
"As a result, although high-net-worth and ultrahigh-net-worth individuals could inherit more than $30 trillion by 2045, their prospective taxes on estates and transfers is $4.2 trillion," the Times observed.
The explosion of wealth inequality in the U.S. over the past several decades has prompted growing calls for systemic reform but little substantive action from lawmakers. In 2017, congressional Republicans and then-President Donald Trump contributed to the inequality boom by ramming through tax legislation that disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Americans.
Now in control of the U.S. House, Republicans are trying to make the Trump tax cuts for individuals permanent and eliminate the estate tax altogether—a move that would give the nation's wealthiest households another $2 trillion in tax breaks.
In April, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) led several of his colleagues in offering an alternative proposal: Legislation that would impose progressively higher taxes on estates worth between $3.5 million and $1 billion, as well as a 65% levy on estates worth more than $1 billion.
"At a time of massive wealth and income inequality, we need to make sure that people who inherit over $3.5 million pay their fair share of taxes," Sanders said last month. "We do not need to provide a huge handout to multi-millionaires and billionaires. It is unacceptable that working families across the country today are struggling to file their taxes on time and put food on the table, while the wealthiest among us profit off of enormous tax loopholes and giant tax breaks."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of Sanders' legislation, tweeted Monday that "Americans overwhelmingly prefer raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy and huge corporations to making cuts to critical programs like healthcare, medical research, and infrastructure."
"Congressional Republicans need to get on board," the senator added.
\u201cAmericans overwhelmingly prefer raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy and huge corporations to making cuts to critical programs like health care, medical research, and infrastructure. Congressional Republicans need to get on board.\u201d— Elizabeth Warren (@Elizabeth Warren) 1684159855
Morris Pearl, a former managing director at the asset management behemoth BlackRock and the chair of the Patriotic Millionaires, stressed in an interview with the Times that structural changes to the U.S. tax code—not just a crackdown on wealthy tax cheats—are necessary to slow the rise of inequality.
"People are following the law just fine. I generally don't pay much taxes," said Pearl, whose group has warned that democracy "will not survive" unless the rich are taxed much more aggressively.
Stressing the ease with which rich families in U.S. are able to pass assets on to their heirs tax-free, Pearl told the Times that he currently holds stock that his wife's father, "who died a long time ago, bought in the 1970s," an investment that "has gone from a few thousand dollars to many hundreds of thousands of dollars"—unrealized capital gains that are not subject to taxation.
University of California, Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman have estimated that $2.7 trillion of the $4.25 trillion in wealth held by U.S. billionaires is unrealized.
"I've never paid a penny of taxes on all that," Pearl said of his inherited equities, "and I may not ever, because I might not sell and then my kids are going to have millions of dollars in income that's never taxed in any way, shape, or form."
"A few short years ago, we were told court expansion was a pipe dream," said one advocate. "With support from groups boldly advocating at the state level to leading national organizations, our movement is growing stronger every day."
Justice advocates marked what they called a "huge" development in the fight for court reform on Monday as Planned Parenthood joined a national coalition that's pushing for the expansion of the U.S. Supreme Court, with the president of the reproductive rights organization saying the court's "capture" by the far right calls for "structural" change.
Alexis McGill Johnson, who leads the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said Monday that the group is joining Just Majority, a coalition including more than 35 groups that are currently on a nationwide tour highlighting ethics violations at the Supreme Court and how reforms including expansion could help protect democracy and secure justice on the highest judicial panel in the country.
"We should be able to make our own decisions about our lives, bodies, and futures," said Johnson in a statement Monday. "The unrelenting attacks on our basic freedoms—including through the courts—demand that we reform our federal court system. Abortion rights, voting rights, LGBTQ+ rights, our democratic institutions, and so much more are at stake."
Johnson spoke toMSNBC's "Inside With Jen Psaki" on Sunday about Planned Parenthood's decision to join the court expansion movement, as other rights groups including NARAL Pro-Choice America, Latino Victory, and Newtown Action Alliance have in recent weeks.
The group was pushed toward its decision, she said, as U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled last month that mifepristone, a pill used in medication abortions, should be taken off the market.
"The reality is, the court now has been fully captured in so many areas," Johnson said. "The fact that you have, again, this lone Texas judge, that can now bring cases, you can form shop there, bring cases to the Fifth Circuit, which is also conservative and up to the Supreme Court now, which has a conservative supermajority... And that is a way to circumvent the way in which popularly elected decisions are made."
"We need to see expanded courts, from the lower courts all the way up to the Supreme Court," she added. "We need to see term limits. We need to see ethical reforms."
\u201cNEWS: @PPact is endorsing Supreme Court expansion.\n\n"The way in which the system has been captured requires us to engage in structural reform." -- @alexismcgill tells @jrpsaki\u201d— Demand Justice (@Demand Justice) 1684083423
Planned Parenthood's decision to join the court expansion movement, which has been led by groups including Demand Justice and Take Back the Court, comes as right-wing Supreme Court justices, particularly Justice Clarence Thomas, have faced intense criticism over alleged ethics violations. Recent reports have pointed to evidence that Thomas has for years received financial gifts from Texas Republican megadonor Harlan Crow without disclosing those financial ties as required by federal law, and Justices Neil Gorsuch and John Roberts have also faced scrutiny about their failure to disclose financial transactions and payments.
"It's really important to call for structural reforms that sustain progress," said Johnson. "It would be one thing to call for a justice to step down for whatever reason, but the reality is that the way in which the system has been captured requires us to engage in structural reform in a different way."
On social media, Johnson said Planned Parenthood's "expanded position" on the courts reflects an expansion of its "commitment" to protecting reproductive rights.
\u201cAs we continue to face unrelenting attacks on our basic freedoms, Planned Parenthood refuses to accept that our courts can only exist as they do now. Our expanded position only expands our commitment to you.\n\nhttps://t.co/ws38by9Io0\u201d— Alexis McGill Johnson (@Alexis McGill Johnson) 1684089002
Demand Justice called Planned Parenthood's decision "an inflection point for the Supreme Court reform movement."
"The endorsement of key groups in the progressive ecosystem like Planned Parenthood shows just how far this campaign has come," said Brian Fallon, executive director of the group. "The public has awoken to the dangers of a captured, corrupt judiciary and is demanding solutions. The composition of the court will obviously not be changed overnight, but the consensus about the need for bold, sweeping reforms is growing by the day, and the salience of the court as a political issue has never been higher."
Sarah Lipton-Lubet, president of Take Back the Court, said Planned Parenthood's joining of the movement shows how court expansion has become "a mainstream progressive policy goal with the support of more than 60 members of Congress and some of the most respected and powerful abortion rights champions in our movement."
"A few short years ago, we were told court expansion was a pipe dream," said Lipton-Lubet. "With support from groups boldly advocating at the state level to leading national organizations, our movement is growing stronger every day. The right-wing extremists on the Court can try to rip our rights away, but we're fighting back even stronger—and we're going to win."
The Supreme Court has been expanded seven times in the past. Reform advocates also called for an addition of seats of lower federal courts to reflect growth in population, diversity, and the number of cases that judges hear.
"It won't be easy and it won't happen overnight but we WILL expand the Supreme Court," said Doug Lindner, senior director of judiciary and democracy for the League of Conservation Voters. "We WILL protect our abortion rights and our climate from these extremists. And we WILL pass on a vibrant, multiracial democracy to the next generation."