California Wilderness Act of 1984 - The "G-O Road"

The "G-O Road"

The passage of the California Wilderness Act created the 153,000-acre (620 km2) Siskiyou Wilderness within the Six Rivers, Klamath and Siskiyou national forests. Within this wilderness area is a portion of the forest road connecting the towns of Gasquet and Orleans (hence the term "G-O Road") which traverses land traditionally used by Native Americans for religious practices. The Forest Service planned to pave a section of the road and conduct a timber sale in the early 1970s . A lawsuit filed by Native Americans to stop this road's upgrade and associated timber harvest went all the way to the US Supreme Court. The California Wilderness Act, by designating the Siskiyou Wilderness area in 1984, made the debate a moot point as it prohibits road construction and logging.

The US Forest Service planned to upgrade and pave a 6-mile (9.7 km) segment of the road that goes through an area called Chimney Rock. In addition, a timber harvest was also scheduled for this area. In 1975, the Forest Service released a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. In response to public comments received on the environmental statement, including consideration of other routes and appeals by the Sierra Club and a group of Native Americans, the Secretary of Agriculture, Richard E. Lyng, supported the Chief Forester and Regional Forester's decision favoring the Chimney Rock Corridor.
In 1977 the Forest Service issued a second DEIS for construction of the G-O Road. After public discussion on this second DEIS, the Forest Service hired an external, professional anthropological consulting firm called Theodoratus Cultural Research, to estimate the effect of building the G-O Road and harvesting timber in the Chimney Rock Section of the Six Rivers National Forest.

Theodoratus Cultural Research, Inc. reported that a cultural conflict existed between Indian religious activity and Forest Service management practices. They concluded that "intrusions on the sanctity of the...high country are . . . potentially destructive of the very core of Northwest religious beliefs and practices." They recommended against completing the G-O Road. In 1982, the Forest Service decided not to adopt this recommendation, and it prepared a final environmental impact statement for construction of the road. Several groups, including a Native American organization and individuals, nature organizations, and the State of California—challenged both the roadbuilding and timber harvesting decisions in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Respondents claimed that the Forest Service's decisions violated the Free Exercise of Religion Clause in the First Amendment, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), and several other federal statutes.

After trial, the District Court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the Forest Service from constructing the Chimney Rock section of the G-O road or putting the timber harvesting management plan into effect. (Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assn. v. Peterson, 565 F.Supp. 586 (1983)). The court found that both actions would violate the Free Exercise Clause because they "would seriously damage the salient visual, aural, and environmental qualities of the high country." The court also found that both proposed actions would violate the FWPCA, and that the environmental impact statements for construction of the road were deficient under the NEPA. Finally, the court concluded that both projects would breach the Government's trust responsibilities to protect water and fishing rights reserved for Native Americans of Hoopa Valley. The Forest Service appealed the decision.

While an appeal was pending before the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the California Wilderness Act of 1984 was passed, which means that timber harvesting, and road construction are forbidden. The Ninth Circuit Court upheld the lower court's decision. In 1987 The US Supreme court heard arguments in the case, and overturned the lower court's rulings by a 5-3 decision. Justice O'Connor wrote the majority opinion which basically stated that the First Amendment rights of the Native Americans have not been violated because the actions of the Forest Service do not prohibit the practice of religion.
As stated in the Opinion:

" This does not and cannot imply that incidental effects of government programs, which may make it more difficult to practice certain religions but which have no tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs, require government to bring forward a compelling justification for its otherwise lawful actions. The crucial word in the constitutional text is "prohibit"..."

Justice Brennan wrote the dissenting opinion, stating,"I thus cannot accept the Court's premise that the form of the government's restraint on religious practice, rather than its effect, controls our constitutional analysis. Respondents here have demonstrated that construction of the G-O road will completely frustrate the practice of their religion, for, as the lower courts found, the proposed logging and construction activities will virtually destroy respondents' religion, and will therefore necessarily force them into abandoning those practices altogether.

Read more about this topic:  California Wilderness Act Of 1984

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