Conservation groups sued the U.S. Forest Service Wednesday because, in developing the new plan for Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the agency failed to consider permanent wilderness area protection for any portion of the millions of acres of undeveloped wild lands on the Tongass. Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Alaska Center for the Environment, and Sitka Conservation Society. The lawsuit alleges the Forest Service violated the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
"No National Forest in the country has more pristine, roadless wild lands than the Tongass. It was short sighted and wrong for the Forest Service to refuse to even consider future wilderness designations for any part of this Forest," said Richard Hellard of the Sierra Club.
"These wild rain forest lands are a national treasure and essential for many species of fish and wildlife, including salmon and brown bears, and for recreation, tourism, use by local residents, hunting and fishing, subsistence and other uses. Conserving the real value of the Tongass for the long term means protecting these lands, especially given that more than half of the best quality forest has already been cut", said Brian McNitt of the Sitka Conservation Society.
"We are asking the Forest Service to conduct a proper evaluation of the values of Tongass roadless areas and to consider possible wilderness area recommendations, in a public process, as the law requires. This should have been done the first time around," said Eric Jorgensen, attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.
"The remaining roadless areas of the Tongass should get some form of permanent protection from clearcutting and other exploitation, and many of them should be designated as wilderness," said Nicole Whittington-Evans of The Wilderness Society. More than 8 million acres of roadless areas eligible for wilderness designation on the Tongass have no permanent protection.
Under the current plan for the Tongass, about 2 million acres of undeveloped roadless lands are open to roading, logging, and other activities that would destroy the wilderness values of these lands. The legal challenge seeks to prevent these kinds of activities on these roadless areas until the Forest Service meets its obligations to consider their special values under the law. Approximately 1 million acres of the Tongass that already have logging roads and are open to logging and other development activities under the current plan are unaffected by this lawsuit.
"Invading these roadless areas so timber companies can clearcut old-growth doesn't make environmental or economic sense," said Karen Button of Alaska Center for the Environment. "The Tongass is the most heavily subsidized timber program in the national forest system, with losses of $33 million a year, according to the most recent government figures, largely because of the high cost of logging in undeveloped roadless areas."
Sally Kabisch, Sierra Club, 907-235-2896, Richard Hellard, 907-789-2255
Nicole Whittington-Evans, The Wilderness Society, 907-272-9453
Karen Button, Alaska Center for the Environment, 907-274-3621
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