Environmentalists Are Defeated in

In a decision that rejected the Sierra Club’s suit to block the construction of a ski resort on public land, the U.S. Supreme Court defined the role judges were thereafter to play in environmental issues, providing guidelines for how environmental groups would continue to pursue their goals.

Summary of Event

On April 19, 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the case Sierra Club v. Morton that the Sierra Club, the large national environmental organization founded in 1892 by John Muir, could not file suit to stop the U.S. Forest Service Forest Service, U.S. from granting permission to Walt Disney Enterprises Walt Disney Company to construct a ski resort in Sequoia National Forest. Sequoia National Forest The Court decided the case by a four-to-three margin, with two members of the nine-member Court not participating. At issue were critical questions about who was entitled to make decisions about the use of national property, how such decisions were to be made, and who, if anyone, could legally represent the interests of the environment. Supreme Court, U.S.;environmental issues
Environmental policy, U.S.
Sierra Club
Supreme Court, U.S.;environmental issues
Environmental policy, U.S.
Sierra Club
McCloskey, J. Michael
Morton, Rogers
Stewart, Potter
Douglas, William O.

The 1970’s are sometimes referred to as the environmental decade because at no previous time had more sweeping environmental legislation been implemented. The decade began with such developments as the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (1969) (signed into law on January 1, 1970), which mandated environmental impact statements, and the first Earth Day Earth Day on April 22, 1970. The 1970’s ended with the creation in 1980 of the so-called Superfund, Superfund (1980) which coordinated the cleanup of toxic-waste sites. Sierra Club v. Morton was one of several key cases that defined the role judges were thereafter to play in environmental issues.

As is often true of Supreme Court cases, the actual ruling was less important than the direction set by it. In rejecting the Sierra Club’s initial presentation, the Supreme Court had also given guidelines for how the environmental group could continue to pursue its goals. In accordance with these guidelines, the Sierra Club used legislation to delay the construction project until Congress put an end to further plans for commercial development.

Mineral King Valley, a beautiful region in the Sierra Nevada adjacent to Sequoia National Park, had become a national game refuge and part of the Sequoia National Forest by a special act of Congress in 1926. The region, which had once been extensively mined, was relatively inaccessible and therefore attracted only a limited number of visitors.

The U.S. Forest Service, the agency that administers all national forests, was created in the early 1900’s after information about the misuse of government forests became known. The Forest Service had first considered Mineral King a potential site for recreational development in the late 1940’s, but the idea was shelved at the time. In the mid-1960’s, the service invited bids from private developers for the construction of a year-round ski and entertainment resort. In 1969, a plan proposed by Walt Disney Enterprises was approved for the area. The proposal, which was designed to accommodate fourteen thousand visitors per day, included a complex of motels, restaurants, swimming pools, ski lifts, a cog-assisted railway, and a twenty-mile access highway to the facility. When J. Michael McCloskey, the Sierra Club’s executive director, was unsuccessful in seeking a public hearing on the proposal, the organization decided to file suit in federal court to prevent the construction of the resort in Mineral King.

This decision marked the beginning of the Sierra Club’s use of the legal system to combat threats to the environment. Until 1966, conservationist suits had not been regarded as legally admissible. In 1966, however, the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference had won a precedent-setting ruling in its effort to stop construction of a power plant in New York State, giving environmental groups renewed hope.

The district court in San Francisco that was the first to hear the Sierra Club’s case sided with the organization and granted a preliminary injunction blocking construction. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed that opinion on the grounds that the Sierra Club had no “standing”—in other words, that the group was not legally qualified to file suit on behalf of the environment. When the Supreme Court reviewed the decision of the two lower courts in 1972, the justices agreed with that opinion. Writing for the majority, Justice Potter Stewart emphasized that the Sierra Club had failed to demonstrate clear injury to either itself or its members.

William O. Douglas, then the strongest environmentalist on the Court, strongly dissented from the majority decision. He alone took the view that it should be possible legally to represent trees and rocks, citing the land ethic set forth in Aldo Leopold’s Leopold, Aldo
A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There (1949). Sand County Almanac, A (Leopold) Leopold maintained that trees, wildlife, rivers, and soil have intrinsic value that ought to be widely recognized. He embraced the land and its inhabitants as part of the ethical community and feared the threats posed by so-called progress and development.

Douglas also used legal arguments from a 1972 article by law professor Christopher Stone titled “Should Trees Have Standing?” “Should Trees Have Standing?” (Stone)[Should Trees Have Standing?”>McCloskey, J. Michael Stone noted that the law vigorously protected the rights of some nonhuman things such as corporations and trusts, as well as legally incompetent individuals for whom the courts appoint a guardian. Stone suggested that organizations such as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society should be regarded as legal guardians of the environment and empowered to file suit on its behalf. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Harry A. Blackmun Blackmun, Harry A. asked, “Must our law be so rigid and our procedural concepts so inflexible that we render ourselves helpless when the existing methods and the traditional concepts do not quite fit and do not prove to be entirely adequate to new issues?”

What should be regarded as harm deserving judicial attention is an issue that has continued to change over the years. Justice Stewart in his majority opinion cited Alexis de Tocqueville’s Tocqueville, Alexis de astute observation, written in the 1830’s, that “scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.” Tocqueville’s point unquestionably applies to environmental issues, which have repeatedly led to litigation in which the courts are asked to determine the precise definition of terms such as “clean” and “safe.” The upsurge in environmental laws and litigation of the 1970’s required legislators and judges to redefine who had the right to litigate which alleged harms. This greatly increased involvement of the courts was in itself controversial in the legal community.


There had been a few important earlier legal cases involving environmental issues, but only in the 1970’s did environmental litigation become common. After that, virtually no major construction project—highway, dam, nuclear power plant, incinerator, airport, or sports complex—would go unchallenged in court. In the 1970’s, the Sierra Club brought more cases to court than any other conservationist organization, filing 93 out of the decade’s 351 U.S. environmental cases.

Courts have complex rules about who has standing to bring suit. Private citizens and taxpayers are, for example, not allowed to challenge congressional appropriations. In Sierra Club v. Morton, the Court ruled that the Sierra Club “lacked standing to maintain the action.” At the same time, however, the Court outlined the steps the organization could take in order to pursue the action more successfully, for example by including the allegation that a ski resort would harm specific members by destroying their hiking trails, campsites, and vistas. Court decisions on subsequent cases generally granted environmental groups such as the Sierra Club the right to voice their objections in court.

The basic structure of American government is biased against environmental values in three important ways. First, the U.S. Constitution favors individual rights, particularly property rights, over environmental concerns. Second, environmental goals have to be pursued through legislation that is far more likely to prohibit unecological behavior than to reward ecologically desirable actions. Electric companies, for example, are punished if they release too much pollution but are not rewarded when they succeed in reducing pollution. The emphasis on violations ensures frequent litigation by wealthy alleged violators. Third, the legal system is inherently slow to act and conservative in its concern for procedure and precedent. Moreover, there are many roadblocks to successful litigation, not the least of which is the cost.

In general, the courts have steered a middle course between environmentalists and proponents of rapid economic growth, permitting a broad range of environmental cases to be heard but frequently siding against environmentalists. Although the Supreme Court has sometimes been accused of letting political events dictate its decisions, this charge was not true of the Court’s rulings on environmental law. The Court’s rulings during the 1970’s did not reflect the popular bias in favor of protecting the environment.

Sierra Club v. Morton came at the beginning of the modern era of environmental legislation and litigation. The deeply divided decision and the Court’s focus on legalities set the tone for the ensuing decades. Supreme Court, U.S.;environmental issues
Environmental policy, U.S.
Sierra Club

Further Reading

  • Breyer, Stephen G. Breaking the Vicious Circle: Toward Effective Risk Regulation. 1993. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. Discussion of the difficulties of effective environmental law by a jurist who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1994.
  • Buck, Susan J. Understanding Environmental Administration and Law. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006. An especially useful source for nonlawyers that explains complex legal and regulatory issues.
  • Findley, Roger W., and Daniel A. Farber. Environmental Law in a Nutshell. 6th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 2004. A short and readable, though dry, summary of environmental law. Part of an excellent and frequently updated series.
  • Stone, Christopher D. Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, Calif.: W. Kaufmann, 1974. An expanded version of the influential and widely anthologized article, “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” which first appeared in 1972 in the California Legal Review.
  • Turner, Tom. Sierra Club: One Hundred Years of Protecting Nature. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991. A beautifully produced history of the Sierra Club, which includes a useful summary of the events leading up to Sierra Club v. Morton.

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