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Roadless Rule Reinstated on the Tongass National Forest

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, adopted at the end of the Clinton administration, banned most logging and road-building on the last 58.5 million unspoiled and unprotected acres on the national forests. It was immediately challenged by states, timber companies and other interests in nine lawsuits, one of which is still awaiting final resolution.

In Alaska, the state and the Forest Service cut a back-room deal: The state sued and the government caved, excluding environmental groups and Native Alaskan organizations from the process. This was called “The Tongass Exemption,” and it removed the Tongass National Forest—the biggest and wildest in the system by far—from the Roadless Rule.

And there it sat for most of 10 years. Environmental groups, via Earthjustice litigation, were able to block every new attempt to cut trees in roadless areas, but the exemption hung like an ugly shroud over everything—until last Friday (March 4), when Judge John Sedwick threw it out and reinstated the rule for the Tongass.

The key to this ruling was that the Forest Service had used as its rationale the fact that including the Tongass in the Roadless Rule would eliminate 900 jobs in Southeast Alaska. This was loosely based on an environmental impact statement that accompanied the 2001 Roadless Rule.

By the time the Tongass Exemption was adopted in 2003, it was already obvious that there was no possible way to lose 900 jobs, because there weren't that many jobs to lose. This was because two big pulp mills—in Ketchikan and Sitka—had closed in the 1990s, exacerbating a decline in the region’s timber industry that continues even today. The total number of Tongass timber jobs in 2003 was probably no more than half that figure.

It was also clear in 2003, based on the Forest Service's own analysis, that it was possible to retain all the existing timber jobs without cutting even one more tree from a roadless area, which was actually a key fact our attorneys relied on in their legal argument. In adopting the Tongass Exemption, the Bush administration simply chose to ignore the momentous changes that had already occurred in the local economy and relied on outdated numbers they knew to be false and misleading. Such dishonesty is how we win cases.

Judge Sedwick saw the situation as it is and was. . .and tossed the exemption.

The Alaska delegation—Senators Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D)—reacted in typical form: The sky is falling. This is a catastrophe. Here's Murkowski: “The decision further damages the economy in Southeast. The roadless rule was never intended to apply to the Tongass. . . .I intend to do every thing I can to limit this damage.”

What's curious about that statement is that it took a major, I mean major, effort by environmental groups to get the Tongass included in the final Roadless Rule. To say it was never intended to apply to the Tongass is simply disingenuous.

Here's Begich, “Simply put, it’s a bad idea and it won’t work for Alaska.”

Environmental groups and Native organizations, meanwhile, were delighted. The Forest Service defended the exemption in court, but more recently the agency has begun moving away from large-scale logging in the Tongass to a more sustainable regime. Tom Waldo, Earthjustice's attorney on the case, hopes that the Forest Service won't appeal the decision, though he expects that the state and the timber industry will.

A major step forward. Not end of story quite yet. We'll keep you posted.