Sierra Club v. Morton/Opinion of the Court

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Sierra Club v. Morton
Opinion of the Court by Potter Stewart
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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinions

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.


The Mineral King Valley is an area of great natural beauty nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Tulare County, California, adjacent to Sequoia National Park. It has been part of the Sequoia National Forest since 1926, and is designated as a national game refuge by special Act of Congress.[1] Though once the site of extensive mining activity, Mineral King is now used almost exclusively for recreational purposes. Its relative inaccessibility and lack of development have limited the number of visitors each year, and at the same time have preserved the valley's quality as a quasi-wilderness area largely uncluttered by the products of civilization.

[p729] The United States Forest Service, which is entrusted with the maintenance and administration of national forests, began in the late 1940's to give consideration to Mineral King as a potential site for recreational development. Prodded by a rapidly increasing demand for skiing facilities, the Forest Service published a prospectus in 1965, inviting bids from private developers for the construction and operation of a ski resort that would also serve as a summer recreation area. The proposal of Walt Disney Enterprises, Inc., was chosen from those of six bidders, and Disney received a three-year permit to conduct surveys and explorations in the valley in connection with its preparation of a complete master plan for the resort.

The final Disney plan, approved by the Forest Service in January, 1969, outlines a $35 million complex of motels, restaurants, swimming pools, parking lots, and other structures designed to accommodate 14,000 visitors daily. This complex is to be constructed on 80 acres of the valley floor under a 30-year use permit from the Forest Service. Other facilities, including ski lifts, ski trails, a cog-assisted railway, and utility installations, are to be constructed on the mountain slopes and in other parts of the valley under a revocable special use permit. To provide access to the resort, the State of California proposes to construct a highway 20 miles in length. A section of this road would traverse Sequoia National Park, as would a proposed high-voltage power line needed to provide electricity for the resort. Both the highway and the power line require the approval of the Department of the Interior, which is entrusted with the preservation and maintenance of the national parks.

Representatives of the Sierra Club, who favor maintaining Mineral King largely in its present state, followed the progress of recreational planning for the valley [p730] with close attention and increasing dismay. They unsuccessfully sought a public hearing on the proposed development in 1965, and, in subsequent correspondence with officials of the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, they expressed the Club's objections to Disney's plan as a whole and to particular features included in it. In June, 1969, the Club filed the present suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, seeking a declaratory judgment that various aspects of the proposed development contravene federal laws and regulations governing the preservation of national parks, forests, and game refuges,[2] and also seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions restraining the federal officials involved from granting their approval or issuing permits in connection with the Mineral King project. The petitioner Sierra Club sued as a membership corporation with "a special interest in the conservation and the sound maintenance of the national parks, game refuges and forests of the country," and invoked the judicial review provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.


After two days of hearings, the District Court granted the requested preliminary injunction. It rejected the respondents' challenge to the Sierra Club's standing to sue, and determined that the hearing had raised questions "concerning possible excess of statutory authority, sufficiently substantial and serious to justify a preliminary injunction. . . ." The respondents appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. 433 F.2d 24. With respect to the petitioner's standing, the court noted that there was

"no allegation in the complaint that members of the Sierra Club would be affected by the actions of [the respondents] other than the fact that the actions are personally displeasing or distasteful to them,"

id. at 33, and concluded:

"We do not believe such club concern without a showing of more direct interest can constitute standing in the legal sense sufficient to challenge the exercise of responsibilities on behalf of all the citizens by two cabinet level officials of the government acting under Congressional and Constitutional authority."

Id. at 30. Alternatively, the Court of Appeals held that the Sierra Club had not made an adequate showing of irreparable injury and likelihood of success on the merits to justify issuance of a preliminary injunction. The court thus vacated the injunction. The Sierra Club filed a petition for a writ of certiorari which we granted, 401 U.S. 907, to review the questions of federal law presented.


The first question presented is whether the Sierra Club has alleged facts that entitle it to obtain judicial review of the challenged action. Whether a party has a sufficient stake in an otherwise justiciable controversy to obtain judicial resolution of that controversy is what [p732] has traditionally been referred to as the question of standing to sue. Where the party does not rely on any specific statute authorizing invocation of the judicial process, the question of standing depends upon whether the party has alleged such a "personal stake in the outcome of the controversy," Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 369 U.S. 204, as to ensure that

"the dispute sought to be adjudicated will be presented in an adversary context and in a form historically viewed as capable of judicial resolution."

Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 392 U.S. 101. Where, however, Congress has authorized public officials to perform certain functions according to law, and has provided by statute for judicial review of those actions under certain circumstances, the inquiry as to standing must begin with a determination of whether the statute in question authorizes review at the behest of the plaintiff.[3]

The Sierra Club relies upon § 10 of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. § 702, which provides:

"A person suffering legal wrong because of agency action, or adversely affected or aggrieved by agency [733] action within the meaning of a relevant statute, is entitled to judicial review thereof."

Early decisions under this statute interpreted the language as adopting the various formulations of "legal interest" and "legal wrong" then prevailing as constitutional requirements of standing.[4] But, in Data Processing Service v. Camp, 397 U.S. 150, and Barlow v. Collins, 397 U.S. 159, decided the same day, we held more broadly that persons had standing to obtain judicial review of federal agency action under § 10 of the APA where they had alleged that the challenged action had caused them "injury in fact," and where the alleged injury was to an interest "arguably within the zone of interests to be protected or regulated" by the statutes that the agencies were claimed to have violated.[5]

In Data Processing, the injury claimed by the petitioners consisted of harm to their competitive position in the computer servicing market through a ruling by the Comptroller of the Currency that national banks might perform data processing services for their customers. In Barlow, the petitioners were tenant farmers who claimed that certain regulations of the Secretary of Agriculture adversely affected their economic position vis-a-vis their landlords. These palpable economic injuries have long been recognized as sufficient to lay the basis for standing, with or without a specific statutory [734] provision for judicial review. [6] Thus, neither Data Processing nor Barlow addressed itself to the question, which has arisen with increasing frequency in federal courts in recent years, as to what must be alleged by persons who claim injury of a noneconomic nature to interests that are widely shared. [7] That question is presented in this case.


The injury alleged by the Sierra Club will be incurred entirely by reason of the change in the uses to which Mineral King will be put, and the attendant change in the aesthetics and ecology of the area. Thus, in referring to the road to be built through Sequoia National Park, the complaint alleged that the development

"would destroy or otherwise adversely affect the scenery, natural and historic objects and wildlife of the park, and would impair the enjoyment of the park for future generations."

We do not question that this type of harm may amount to an "injury in fact" sufficient to lay the basis for standing under § 10 of the APA. Aesthetic and environmental wellbeing, like economic wellbeing, are important ingredients of the quality of life in our society, and the fact that particular environmental interests are shared by the many, rather than the few, does not make them less deserving of legal protection through the judicial process. But the "injury in fact," test requires more than an injury to a cognizable [p735] interest. It requires that the party seeking review be himself among the injured.

The impact of the proposed changes in the environment of Mineral King will not fall indiscriminately upon every citizen. The alleged injury will be felt directly only by those who use Mineral King and Sequoia National Park, and for whom the aesthetic and recreational values of the area will be lessened by the highway and ski resort. The Sierra Club failed to allege that it or its members would be affected in any of their activities or pastimes by the Disney development. Nowhere in the pleadings or affidavits did the Club state that its members use Mineral King for any purpose, much less that they use it in any way that would be significantly affected by the proposed action of the respondents.[8]

[p736] The Club apparently regarded any allegations of individualized injury as superfluous, on the theory that this was a "public" action involving questions as to the use of natural resources, and that the Club's longstanding concern with and expertise in such matters were sufficient to give it standing as a "representative of the public."[9] This theory reflects a misunderstanding of our cases involving so-called "public actions" in the area of administrative law.

The origin of the theory advanced by the Sierra Club may be traced to a dictum in Scripps-Howard Radio v. FCC, 316 U.S. 4, in which the licensee of a radio station in Cincinnati, Ohio, sought a stay of an order of the FCC allowing another radio station in a nearby city to change its frequency and increase its range. In discussing its power to grant a stay, the Court noted that "these private litigants have standing only as representatives of the public interest." Id. at 316 U.S. 14. But that observation did not describe the basis upon which the appellant was allowed to obtain judicial review as a "person aggrieved" within the meaning of the statute involved in that case,[10] since Scripps [p737] Howard was clearly "aggrieved" by reason of the economic injury that it would suffer as a result of the Commission's action.[11] The Court's statement was, rather, directed to the theory upon which Congress had authorized judicial review of the Commission's actions. That theory had been described earlier in FCC v. Sanders Bros. Radio Station, 309 U.S. 470, 309 U.S. 477, as follows:

"Congress had some purpose in enacting § 40(b)(2). It may have been of opinion that one likely to be financially injured by the issue of a license would be the only person having a sufficient interest to bring to the attention of the appellate court errors of law in the action of the Commission in granting the license. It is within the power of Congress to confer such standing to prosecute an appeal."

Taken together, Sanders and Scripps-Howard thus established a dual proposition: the fact of economic injury is what gives a person standing to seek judicial review under the statute, but, once review is properly invoked, that person may argue the public interest in support of his claim that the agency has failed to comply with its statutory mandate.[12] It was in the latter sense that the "standing" of the appellant in Scripps-Howard existed only as a "representative of the public interest." It is in a similar sense that we have used the phrase "private attorney general" to [p738] describe the function performed by persons upon whom Congress has conferred the right to seek judicial review of agency action. See Data Processing, supra, at 397 U.S. 154.

The trend of cases arising under the APA and other statutes authorizing judicial review of federal agency action has been toward recognizing that injuries other than economic harm are sufficient to bring a person within the meaning of the statutory language, and toward discarding the notion that an injury that is widely shared is ipso facto not an injury sufficient to provide the basis for judicial review.[13] We noted this development with approval in Data Processing, 397 U.S. at 397 U.S. 154, in saying that the interest alleged to have been injured "may reflect aesthetic, conservational, and recreational,' as well as economic, values." But broadening the categories of injury that may be alleged in support of standing is a different matter from abandoning the requirement that the party seeking review must himself have suffered an injury.

Some courts have indicated a willingness to take this latter step by conferring standing upon organizations [p739] that have demonstrated "an organizational interest in the problem" of environmental or consumer protection. Environmental Defense Fund v. Hardin, 138 U.S.App.D.C. 391, 395, 428 F.2d 1093, 1097.[14] It is clear that an organization whose members are injured may represent those members in a proceeding for judicial review. See, e.g., NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 371 U.S. 428. But a mere "interest in a problem," no matter how longstanding the interest and no matter how qualified the organization is in evaluating the problem, is not sufficient, by itself, to render the organization "adversely affected" or "aggrieved" within the meaning of the APA. The Sierra Club is a large and long-established organization, with a historic commitment to the cause of protecting our Nation's natural heritage from man's depredations. But if a "special interest" in this subject were enough to entitle the Sierra Club to commence this litigation, there would appear to be no objective basis upon which to disallow a suit by any other bona fide "special interest" organization, however small or short-lived. And if any group with a bona fide "special interest" could initiate such litigation, it is difficult to perceive why any individual citizen with the [740] same bona fide special interest would not also be entitled to do so.

The requirement that a party seeking review must allege facts showing that he is himself adversely affected does not insulate executive action from judicial review, nor does it prevent any public interests from being protected through the judicial process. [15] It does serve as at least a rough attempt to put the decision as to whether review will be sought in the hands of those who have a direct stake in the outcome. That goal would be undermined were we to construe the APA to authorize judicial review at the behest of organizations or individuals who seek to do no more than vindicate their own value preferences through the judicial process.[16] The principle that the Sierra Club would have us establish in this case would do just that.


As we conclude that the Court of Appeals was correct in its holding that the Sierra Club lacked standing to maintain this action, we do not reach any other questions presented in the petition, and we intimate no view on the merits of the complaint. The judgment is


MR. JUSTICE POWELL and MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.


  1. Act of July 3, 1926, § 6, 44 Stat. 821, 16 U.S.C. § 688.
  2. As analyzed by the District Court, the complaint alleged violations of law falling into four categories. First, it claimed that the special use permit for construction of the resort exceeded the maximum acreage limitation placed upon such permits by 16 U.S.C. § 497, and that issuance of a "revocable" use permit was beyond the authority of the Forest Service. Second, it challenged the proposed permit for the highway through Sequoia National Park on the grounds that the highway would not serve any of the purposes of the park, in alleged violation of 16 U.S.C. § 1, and that it would destroy timber and other natural resources protected by 16 U.S.C. §§ 41 and 43. Third, it claimed that the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior had violated their own regulations by failing to hold adequate public hearings on the proposed project. Finally, the complaint asserted that 16 U.S.C. § 45c requires specific congressional authorization of a permit for construction of a power transmission line within the limits of a national park.
  3. Congress may not confer jurisdiction on Art. III federal courts to render advisory opinions, Muskrat v. United States, 219 U.S. 346, or to entertain "friendly" suits, United States v. Johnson, 319 U.S. 302, or to resolve "political questions," 48 U.S. 100, is one within the power of Congress to determine. Cf. FCC v. Sanders Bros. Radio Station, 309 U.S. 470, 309 U.S. 477; Flast v. Cohen, supra, at 392 U.S. 120 (Harlan, J., dissenting); Associated Industries v. Ickes, 134 F.2d 694, 704. See generally Berger, Standing to Sue in Public Actions: Is it a Constitutional Requirement?, 78 Yale L.J. 816, 837 et seq.@ (1969); Jaffe, The Citizen as Litigant in Public Actions: The Non-Hohfeldian or Ideological Plaintiff, 116 U.Pa.L.Rev. 1033 (1968).
  4. See, e.g., Kansas City Power & Light Co. v. McKay, 96 U.S.App.D.C. 273, 281, 225 F.2d 924, 932; Ove Gustavsson Contraction Co. v. Floete, 278 F.2d 912, 914; Duba v. Schuetzle, 303 F.2d 570, 574. The theory of a "legal interest" is expressed in its extreme form in Alabama Power Co. v. Ickes, 302 U.S. 464, 302 U.S. 479-481. See also Tennessee Electric Power Co. v. TVA, 306 U.S. 118, 306 U.S. 137-139.
  5. In deciding this case, we do not reach any questions concerning the meaning of the "zone of interests" test or its possible application to the facts here presented.
  6. See, e.g., Hardin v. Kentucky Utilities Co., 390 U.S. 1, 390 U.S. 7; Chicago v. Atchison, T. & S.F. R. Co., 357 U.S. 77, 357 U.S. 83; FCC v. Sanders Bros. Radio Station, supra, at 309 U.S. 477.
  7. No question of standing was raised in Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402. The complaint in that case alleged that the organizational plaintiff represented members who were

    "residents of Memphis, Tennessee who use Overton Park as a parkland and recreation area and who have been active since 1964 in efforts to preserve and protect Overton Park as a park land and recreation area."

  8. The only reference in the pleadings to the Sierra Club's interest in the dispute is contained in paragraph 3 of the complaint, which reads in its entirety as follows:

    "Plaintiff Sierra Club is a non-profit corporation organized and operating under the laws of the State of California, with its principal place of business in San Francisco, California, since 1892. Membership of the club is approximately 78,000 nationally, with approximately 27,000 members residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. For many years, the Sierra Club, by its activities and conduct, has exhibited a special interest in the conservation and the sound maintenance of the national parks, game refuges and forests of the country, regularly serving as a responsible representative of persons similarly interested. One of the principal purposes of the Sierra Club is to protect and conserve the national resources of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Its interests would be vitally affected by the acts hereinafter described, and would be aggrieved by those acts of the defendants as hereinafter more fully appears."

    In an amici curiae brief filed in this Court by the Wilderness Society and others, it is asserted that the Sierra Club has conducted regular camping trips into the Mineral King area, and that various members of the Club have used and continue to use the area for recreational purposes. These allegations were not contained in the pleadings, nor were they brought to the attention of the Court of Appeals. Moreover, the Sierra Club, in its reply brief, specifically declines to rely on its individualized interest as a basis for standing. See n 15, infra. Our decision does not, of course, bar the Sierra Club from seeking in the District Court to amend its complaint by a motion under Rule 15, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

  9. This approach to the question of standing was adopted by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Citizens Committee for the Hudson Valley v. Volpe, 425 F.2d 97, 105: "We hold, therefore, that the public interest in environmental resources — an interest created by statutes affecting the issuance of this permit — is a legally protected interest affording these plaintiffs, as responsible representatives of the public, standing to obtain judicial review of agency action alleged to be in contravention of that public interest."
  10. The statute involved was § 402(b)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934, 48 Stat. 1093.
  11. This much is clear from the Scripps-Howard Court's citation of FCC v. Sanders Bros. Radio Station, 309 U.S. 470, in which the basis for standing was the competitive injury that the appellee would have suffered by the licensing of another radio station in its listening area.
  12. The distinction between standing to initiate a review proceeding and standing to assert the rights of the public or of third persons once the proceeding is properly initiated is discussed in 3 K. Davis, Administrative Law Treatise §§ 22.05-22.07 (1958).
  13. See, e.g., Environmental Defense Fund v. Hardin, 138 U.S.App.D.C. 391, 395, 428 F.2d 1093, 1097 (interest in health affected by decision of Secretary of Agriculture refusing to suspend registration of certain pesticides containing DDT); Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ v. FCC, 123 U.S.App.D.C. 328, 339, 359 F.2d 994, 1005 (interest of television viewers in the programing of a local station licensed by the FCC); Scenic Hudson Preservation Conf. v. FPC, 354 F.2d 608, 615-616 (interests in aesthetics, recreation, and orderly community planning affected by FPC licensing of a hydroelectric project); Reade v. Ewing, 205 F.2d 630, 631-632 (interest of consumers of oleomargarine in fair labeling of product regulated by Federal Security Administration); Crowther v. Seaborg, 312 F.Supp. 1205, 1212 (interest in health and safety of persons residing near the site of a proposed atomic blast).
  14. See Citizens Committee for the Hudson Valley v. Volpe, n 9, supra; Environmental Defense Fund, Inc. v. Corps of Engineers, 325 F.Supp. 728, 7373; Izaak Walton League v. St. Clair, 313 F.Supp. 1312, 1317. See also Scenic Hudson Preservation Conf. v. FPC, supra, at 616:

    "In order to insure that the Federal Power Commission will adequately protect the public interest in the aesthetic, conservational, and recreational aspects of power development, those who, by their activities and conduct, have exhibited a special interest in such areas must be held to be included in the class of 'aggrieved' parties under § 313(b) [of the Federal Power Act]."

    In most, if not all, of these cases, at least one party to the proceeding did assert an individualized injury either to himself or, in the case of an organization, to its members.

  15. In its reply brief, after noting the fact that it might have chosen to assert individualized injury to itself or to its members as a basis for standing, the Sierra Club states:

    "The Government seeks to create a 'heads I win, tails you lose' situation in which either the courthouse door is barred for lack of assertion of a private, unique injury or a preliminary injunction is denied on the ground that the litigant has advanced private injury which does not warrant an injunction adverse to a competing public interest. Counsel have shaped their case to avoid this trap."

    The short answer to this contention is that the "trap" does not exist. The test of injury in fact goes only to the question of standing to obtain judicial review. Once this standing is established, the party may assert the interests of the general public in support of his claims for equitable relief. See n 12 and accompanying text, supra.

  16. Every schoolboy may be familiar with Alexis de Tocqueville's famous observation, written in the 1830's, that "[s]carcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question." 1 Democracy in America 280 (1945). Less familiar, however, is De Tocqueville's further observation that judicial review is effective largely because it is not available simply at the behest of a partisan faction, but is exercised only to remedy a particular, concrete injury.

    "It will be seen, also, that, by leaving it to private interest to censure the law, and by intimately uniting the trial of the law with the trial of an individual, legislation is protected from wanton assaults and from the daily aggressions of party spirit. The errors of the legislator are exposed only to meet a real want; and it is always a positive and appreciable fact that must serve as the basis of a prosecution."

    Id. at 102.