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Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association

Significance

Strengthened federal government's right to make land-use and other decisions in spite of the objections of religious minorities.

In the 1970s the U.S. Forest Service planned to build a road through the Chimney Rock section of the Six Rivers National Forest to link the California towns of Gasquet and Orleans. The section through which the road was planned was held sacred by Native American tribes resident in the area and was used by them as a site for various religious rites. In response to comments on a draft statement of its environmental impact report, in 1977 the Forest Service commissioned a study of these sites and the possible impact of the proposed road. The study was finished in 1979, and it found the entire area to be "significant as an integral and indispensable part of Indian religious practice" and that construction of the road "would cause serious and irreparable damage to the sacred areas which are an integral and necessary part of the belief systems and lifeway of Northwest California Indian peoples." Thus the study recommended that the road not be built.

The Forest Service rejected the recommendation of the study and in 1982 issued a final environmental impact statement regarding the proposed road. It planned to build the road despite the recommendation of the study, but consideration was given to the points raised, and construction plans were adjusted accordingly. Although alternative routes completely away from the area were rejected because private land would have to be acquired and some of the areas had soil stability problems, the Forest Service selected a route for the road that was as far removed as possible from various sites where specific rituals took place. The Forest Service also adopted a plan to allow timber harvesting in the area, with a half-mile buffer zone around all significant sites identified by the 1979 study.

A group of interested parties, among them the state of California, individual members of Native American tribes, a Native American association, and conservation groups, filed suit in district court claiming that road construction or harvesting of timber in the area would violate several federal statutes and violate the rights of Native Americans who used the various sites in the area for religious purposes under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The district court found for the group on both statutory and constitutional claims, the latter because both plans would "seriously damage the salient visual, aural, and environmental qualities" of the area. It further found that the road and timber-harvesting plans would violate government trust responsibility regarding water and fishing rights of residents of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation. The district court issued a permanent injunction barring implementation of both plans.

The court of appeals affirmed the injunction on statutory grounds but rejected part that had been rendered moot by passage of congressional legislation that designated most of the property as wilderness area, under which timber harvesting and other commercial activities are prohibited; it also rejected the district court's finding regarding a breach of government trust responsibility regarding the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation. A majority upheld the district court's constitutional ruling, finding that the government had not proven a compelling interest for the construction of the road. The government petitioned for certiorari on the constitutional issue

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association - Significance, The Majority Opinion, The Dissent, Impact, Further Readings