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Tongass Wilderness Injunction Buys Time

On June 11, 2002, Earthjustice achieved an important victory for the Tongass when U.S. District Judge Singleton ruled from the bench that the Forest Service cannot continue to approve timber sales in roadless areas while simultaneously considering the very same areas for wilderness protection. The Forest Service is currently in the midst of a supplemental process ordered by the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska as a result of Earthjustice's successful challenge to the revised Tongass plan's failure to consider whether any areas should be recommended for wilderness.

Earthjustice's first victory in this case came on March 30, 2001, when the Court ruled that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act by failing to consider wilderness recommendations when it revised the Tongass Land Management Plan. The Court ordered the Forest Service to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement analyzing all Tongass roadless areas for wilderness. At that time, the Court also enjoined all logging and road building in roadless areas. At the request of the timber industry and the government, the Court subsequently suspended the injunction and ordered an evidentiary proceeding on the proper scope of the injunction.

After a three day proceeding this spring, the Court entered a new injunction that prohibited the Forest Service from permitting logging and road building in roadless areas until the Forest Service completes the court-ordered supplemental process. The injunction contained an exemption for all timber sales approved before 1999, allowing the timber industry to continue logging a few sales affecting roadless areas it already has under contract.

Despite the injunction, the Forest Service planned to go ahead with new timber sales in the areas under consideration in the supplemental process. The Forest Service took the position that the injunction allowed it to approve timber sales as long as it did not allow any logging to take place before the wilderness supplement is complete. The Forest Service also published its draft wilderness review that recommended no new wilderness designations for the Tongass. It appeared that the Forest Service was going through the supplemental process only reluctantly.

In June, Earthjustice was back in Court to prevent the Forest Service from allocating areas to logging before completing the wilderness review. Earthjustice argued that for the wilderness process to be a fair process in the spirit of NEPA, the Forest Service should not be deciding to log areas before it has considered their wilderness potential. The Court agreed that a NEPA process that allowed the Forest Service to decide first and analyze later would be prejudicial to the outcome. Accordingly, the Court ordered the Forest Service not to issue any records of decision on roadless timber sales until 45 days after the final wilderness review is released.

This is a victory for the public and the integrity of the process. Preventing the Forest Service from making key decisions before the supplemental process is complete assures that the public participation can be meaningful. This decision also means that none of the big, controversial timber sales the Forest Service has in the works for some of the most pristine areas of the Tongass will be final until sometime in 2003. Had it not been for this injunction, at least seven such massive roadless sales would have been decided in the coming months.