Buckley, Brion, McGuire & Morris LLP
Wins in PA Supreme Court:
Complete dismissal of challenge to Snowmobile and All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) Laws brought under
PA Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment
In 2018 and 2020, the General Assembly amended the Fiscal Code to legislate new ATV trails and establish an ATV “pilot program” to explore further state forest expansion of the trail network. In response, the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (“PEDF”) challenged these amendments as violating Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution—the Environmental Rights Amendment (“ERA”). PEDF sought not only a declaration that the amendments were unconstitutional, but also the underlying ATV and Snowmobile laws themselves. PEDF extensively cited the Supreme Court cases of recent years, Robinson Township and PEDF I, II, and III, which had imposed trustee duties on all public entities not to “degrade” the assets in the trust—public lands.
Buckley Brion was privileged to represent the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate in the litigation. After extensive briefing, the Commonwealth Court dismissed PEDF’s challenge in a November 2022 decision, holding that PEDF’s Petition for Review “does not support the claim that, on their face, the statutes show no respect for the Environmental Rights Amendment.” The Commonwealth Court characterized the relief sought by PEDF as an “absolute prohibition” against ATV use in state forests and parks, expressing concern that upholding this ERA challenge “would eliminate the balancing of recreational interests with the preservation of the forests[.]”
PEDF appealed the Commonwealth Court’s dismissal to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s decision in a Per Curiam Order on November 22, 2023. The Commonwealth Court’s decision, now affirmed, makes clear that certain recreational uses on state lands can be balanced with environmental protection and preservation under the ERA. Accordingly, elected officials can now argue with appellate precedent in support that they do not violate their constitutional duties merely because they ratify legislation involving outdoor recreational activity. Government entities now have a decision to cite where both the Commonwealth Court and the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the ERA is a strict liability provision—any impacts to public lands are unconstitutional. While the next chapter is not yet written, Buckley Brion is pleased to inform its clients of this latest success.