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Appeals Court Blocks Tongass Timber Sales

On August 5, 2005, Earthjustice and its clients achieved a major forest victory in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The Court ruled that the Forest Service must correct serious problems in the 1997 Tongass National Forest Land Management Plan -- a plan that guides the multiple use of Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest National Forest -- and sent the case back to the Alaska District Court.

The decision is an outcome of two lawsuits that several conservation groups filed in December 2003 and January 2004, challenging the 1997 Forest Plan and seven timber sales in roadless areas of the Tongass. The challenges centered on the impact of a Forest Service error that doubled its projections of market demand for Tongass timber. Market demand projections were used to determine the maximum logging level allowed in the 1997 Forest Plan. The overall effect of the Forest Service's error was to exaggerate Tongass logging levels, and put much more land in logging designations than the agency's own economists found was necessary to supply local mills. The Forest Service's own analysis has shown that there is enough timber on the existing road system to log at double current logging levels in perpetuity. "These are not small mistakes. Impacts of these errors are felt all over the Tongass, in places where Alaskans struggle to safeguard their hunting grounds, fisheries, and business opportunities," said Bruce Baker, President of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Board of Directors, and former Deputy Director of Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Habitat Division.

The Appeals Court ruled for the Plaintiffs on all accounts. With regard to our claims under the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), the Court stated:

"Common sense, as well as the record, tells us that the Forest Service's assessment of market demand was important for its determination . . . [on] how much timber is allowed to be cut. Given the competing goals to be accommodated under NFMA, it is clear that trees are not to be cut nor forests leveled for no purpose. If market demand exists for timber, the need for timber harvest may outweigh the competing goals for environmental preservation and recreational use. But if the demand for timber was mistakenly exaggerated, it follows that the timber harvest goal may have been given precedence over the competing environmental and recreational goals without justification sufficient to support the agency's balancing of these goals."

The erroneous plan also violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that requires that the public and the decision makers' evaluation of the plan, its alternatives and impacts, is based full and accurate information. As the Court expressed it:

"Had the decision makers and public known of the accurate demand forecast for Tongass timber, and the concomitant lower employment and earnings potential, the Forest Service may have selected an alternative with less adverse environmental impact, in less environmentally sensitive areas. Presenting accurate market demand information was necessary to ensure a well-informed and reasoned decision, both of which are procedural requirements under NEPA."

Read the entire Ninth Circuit decision

The Alaska District Court will now have to decide what timber sales may proceed while the Forest Service conducts a public process to correct the errors in its plan. Earthjustice, on behalf of its clients, will work hard to ensure that roadless areas are not clearcut during this time.

Earthjustice, together with Natural Resources Defense Council, represented six Plaintiffs in this case: Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, and Center Biological Diversity.