A court order that halted logging in roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest was defended in court Wednesday by forest conservation groups. The brief that was filed was in response to the Forest Service's motion to overturn or modify the March 30th ruling by Federal District Judge James Singleton which stopped the Forest Service "...from taking any action to change the wilderness character of any eligible roadless area" until a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) has been prepared.
"The Forest Service broke the law," said Mark Rorick of the Sierra Club, "and their failure to follow proper procedures has harmed the public's interest. All we asked is that they do it right, and the court agreed with us."
"The Forest Service has erroneously interpreted the court's order to mean that even some roaded timber sales should be shut down. This greatly exaggerates the impact to Southeast communities," said Pat Veesart of the Sitka Conservation Society. "The Forest Service halted logging on 36 million board feet (mmbf) of timber in four sales that are completely roaded. It was never our intention that areas where roads have already been built be affected by the stay and we have asked Judge Singleton for a clarification of his ruling."
The Forest Service's own information shows that 44 timber sales are currently under contract that do not include any roadless areas. These sales contain about 135 mmbf of timber, 70 mmbf of which still remains to be cut. "There's 70 million board feet of timber immediately available on the Tongass right now that is outside of the judge's injunction," stated Michelle Wilson of the Alaska Center for the Environment. "That's enough timber to keep operating at normal levels for the independent timber sale program, while protecting the priceless roadless areas of the Tongass." To put those numbers in context, the average annual volume cut from competitively bid timber sales in the Tongass over the last 5 years has been 47 mmbf.
"The ruling has significant benefits for Southeast Alaska," said Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice representing the conservation groups. "Roadless areas benefit tourism, commercial and sport fishing, hunting and subsistence. The court's ruling temporarily protects these uses while allowing the Forest Service to plan sales in roaded areas. Roadless areas should be preserved for the public and other forest-dependent uses, not just the timber industry."
The judge's ruling comes at a critical time as the Bush administration in Washington DC attempts to un-do the tremendously popular Roadless Rule. It adds a temporary measure of protection to areas that should be covered by the rule, but aren't because of Bush Administration delays. "In Alaska and throughout the rest of the country, the public strongly supports protection of the remaining roadless areas of the Tongass," said Waldo, "In the recent 18-month public comment process for the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, over 95% of the 1.6 million people that commented favored protecting the last great places from roads and clear-cuts. In Alaska, over 7,587 people commented and 82% supported the policy that included the Tongass."