A Step Forward in Protecting Blair Mountain

By william cook posted 09-08-2014 17:05

  
 View of Blair Mountain from the historic village of Gerrardstown, W.Va. | Credit: Nell Ziehl
View of Blair Mountain from the historic village of Gerrardstown, W.Va. | Credit: Nell Ziehl
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Sierra Club, and a coalition of preservation allies and environmental groups achieved a major victory last week when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in a 2-1 decision , determined that the coalition had standing to sue the National Park Service, Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, and the Department of the Interior for unlawfully removing Blair Mountain from the National Register of Historic Places. The court of appeals reversed the 2012 decision of U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who dismissed the lawsuit on the basis that the coalition members lacked standing to sue.  The Court of Appeals’ ruling is a major setback for coal companies, who led an earlier successful effort to have Blair Mountain removed from the National Register.

The Blair Mountain Battlefield, in Logan County, West Virginia, is the site of the 1921 battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed labor conflict in the nation's history, and which involved at least 7,000 miners who were seeking the right to unionize and exercise civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly. Blair Mountain was previously included on the National Trust’s List of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2006.

The recent Blair Mountain decision is significant in that it recognizes the ability of preservation plaintiffs to sue for injuries to aesthetic interests, a position that is often challenged by defendants early on in litigation before the merits of any legal arguments are ever heard. Writing for the court, Judge Sri Srinivasan, who was joined by Chief Judge Merrick Garland, determined that the plaintiffs “who enjoy and view the battlefield’s aesthetic features, or who observe it for the purposes of studying and appreciating its history, would suffer a concrete and particularized injury from the conduct of surface mining on the Battlefield [and  surrounding landscape]."

Rejecting the coal companies’ argument that this type of injury did not suffice because plaintiffs had no legal right to enter the battlefield area, the court went on to find that the plaintiffs have an “interest in observing the landscape from surrounding areas, for instance, or in enjoying the battlefield while on public roads.” The court also referenced a sworn statement by one person whose grandfather fought at the Battle of Blair Mountain, and who plans to continue visiting the site, who stated that strip mining would “destroy a virtually holy place” that he considers “sacred ground.”

In reaching its decision, the court of appeals relied on analogous federal court cases involving the ability of people to sue in order to preserve natural vistas or to protect the ability to observe wildlife free from other types of visual intrusions. Thus, the court’s opinion is not only significant in terms of the plaintiffs’ ability to press ahead in their lawsuit challenging the arbitrary and capricious removal of Blair Mountain from the National Register, but more broadly in terms of recognizing aesthetic injuries as being sufficiently concrete enough to provide standing in other preservation cases. This ruling does not mean, however, that the plaintiffs will necessarily prevail in their lawsuit to reinstate Blair Mountain’s National Register listing, but does mean that their case will move ahead to the next stages of litigation in federal district court.

For more information about the history of Blair Mountain, and the longstanding battle fought by preservationists to save it from destructive strip mining, see these two articles from National Geographic.

#Landscapes #PublicLands #11Most

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