Plaintiff National Wildlife Federation (“NWF”) challenged a 2020 Final Rule regarding the certification of wetland maps that occurred between 1990-1996.  The rule was established by the National Resource Conservation Service (“NRCS”). In the 1990 Farm Bill, Congress required NRCS to “delineate wetlands on wetland delineation maps”, certified each map, and periodically “review and update” the certifications. In the 1996 Farm Bill, the statute was amended and stated certifications “shall not be subject to a subsequent wetland certification[.]”

Prior to 2013, state-level NRCS offices were not taking a uniform approach to certified wetland determination requests regarding pre–1996 certifications, and often times farmers were told that their determination was not certified. Beginning in 2013, NRCS began treating pre-1996 determinations as certified if the map was legible and the farmer was informed of their appeal rights. There were a few interim rules, but ultimately in 2020 NRCS issued a final rule substantially the same as the 2013 procedures. The NRCS did not consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) or create an updated Environmental Impact Statement when issuing the final rule, but it did issue a new finding of “no significant impact” under the National Environmental Policy Act. The plaintiff challenged the 2020 rule arguing that NRCS violated the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”) by creating the rule “without exercising reasoned decision-making” and moved for summary judgment. The NRCS also moved for summary judgement arguing that NWF did not have standing to bring the suit.

The D.C. District Court found that NWF had Article III standing and could bring a lawsuit against NRCS. NWF has standing through the “associational standing doctrine” which requires that at least one member has standing to sue individually, and the lawsuit pertains to the organization’s purpose. The court found that three members of NWF would have standing to sue because they receive recreational benefits from wetlands.

The D.C. District Court found that NRCS did violate the APA when it created the 2020 Final Rule. NRCS argued that it did not change its policy in 2013; instead, it clarified confusion that occurred at the state level. The court did not agree, it reviewed the record and found that there is a discernable difference beginning in 2013 in how the agency’s treated pre-1996 certifications. NRCS conceded that if the policy had changed, it violated the APA. Therefore, the court found that NRCS violated the APA when it made the 2020 Final Rule regarding pre-1996 certifications.

Nat'l Wildlife Fed v Lohr et. al., Civil Action No. 19-cv-2416 (D.D.C. Feb. 22, 2024).