On May 1, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed Methow Valley ski resort is adequate. This decision, concerning a project planned for Sandy Butte, also called Early Winters, sets an important precedent for interpretation of the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The court rules that a detailed mitigation plan is not a requirement of an Environmental Impact Statement in certain conditions. However, the decision stresses the importance of a mitigation plan under other circumstances. As a practical matter, the decision becomes a moot point. The Early Winters ski resort project is eventually abandoned for financial reasons.
Commerce vs. Conservation
This case stemmed from a longstanding, controversial proposal to develop a commercial ski area at the base of Sandy Butte, a 6,000-foot mountain in the Okanogan National Forest in the North Cascades west of Winthrop. The project, also called Early Winters Ski Resort, had its boosters and its opponents in the Methow Valley.
In 1984, the Forest Service released an Environmental Impact Statement, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The statement, called the Early Winters Study, contained 150 pages of analysis and research, including extensive discussion of various options for mitigating the possible adverse effects on air quality and a migratory deer herd. Yet it did not include a fully developed mitigation plan. The study ultimately recommended that a permit be issued for a 16-lift ski area.
Four environmental organizations led by the Methow Valley Citizens Council appealed the decision, and the case finally ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on January 9, 1989. The Court decided to hear the case for three reasons: To determine whether NEPA requires a "fully developed plan to mitigate environmental harm"; to determine if a special use permit can be issued "in the absence" of such a plan; and to determine if NEPA requires looking at the "worst case analysis" in the absence of relevant information (Robertson v. Methow Valley Citizens).
NEPA's "Hard Look" Requirement
The environmental organizations and some of the lower courts ruled that a fully developed mitigation plan was indeed required. The key issue was in the interpretation of Section 101 of NEPA, which called for a "detailed statement" on the environmental impact of a project and its "adverse environmental effects which cannot be avoided" (NEPA statute). This, along with other provisions in the law, had become known as NEPA’s “hard look” requirement. In other words, federal agencies had an obligation to take a serious look at environmental consequences.
The court indeed ruled that a "hard look" was required, but it also ruled that the Early Winters Study complied with that rule. The study had presented numerous mitigation options even though it didn’t have a formal mitigation plan. The key passage in the decision said that there is a "fundamental distinction" between a requirement that "mitigation be discussed in sufficient detail" and a requirement that a full-blown mitigation plan be "actually formulated and adopted" (Robertson v. Methow Valley Citizens). The Court also ruled that NEPA does not require that an Environmental Impact Statement contain a "worst case analysis" in the absence of sufficient scientific information about, in this instance, the impact on the deer herd.
The decision was mixed, in that "the Court is not stating that mitigation is unimportant" (Cohen and Miller, p. 184). In fact, the court said that if mitigation becomes the basis for an agency’s decision, the mitigation plan must be complete. Yet it ruled that this did not apply in this case.
The case was remanded to the lower courts, but in the long run, it didn’t matter. The Early Winters Ski Resort projected stalled for financial and logistical reasons and was abandoned in 1995.