In response to a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of four conservation groups, a federal court on Friday ordered the U.S. Forest Service to consider whether more wilderness areas should be designated in the Tongass National Forest. Judge James K. Singleton, Jr., of the US District Court for the District of Alaska ruled that the Forest Service violated two federal laws when the agency refused to consider any new wilderness areas in the 1997 Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Tongass Land Management Plan Revision (TLMP). The order also prevents the Forest Service from permitting any new roads or timber sales in roadless areas of the Tongass until the agency prepares an EIS considering wilderness.
"In Alaska and in the rest of the country, the public strongly supports protection of the remaining roadless areas of the Tongass," said Tom Waldo, an Earthjustice attorney representing the plaintiffs. "In the recent public process for the Forest Service roadless area protection rule, over a million people spoke out in favor of protecting these places from roads and clearcuts."
"Finally, we will have a public forum to address whether some of the incredible remaining roadless areas of the Tongass should be designated as wilderness," said Allen Smith of The Wilderness Society. Under federal law, only Congress can designate new wilderness areas, but the Forest Service is required to make recommendations on new wilderness proposals when preparing a land management plan.
"What a relief," said Pat Veesart of the Sitka Conservation Society. "This order spares some of most prized roadless areas in the Tongass from the ax." He cited sales planned for Cape Fanshaw, the Cleveland Peninsula, Bradfield Canal, Gravina Island, and Cholmondeley Sound as examples of sales the Forest Service will have to cancel to comply with the order.
The order does not affect timber sales in the areas of the Tongass already on the road system. "This ruling reaffirms our position from day one, the Forest Service should concentrate on sales of timber in roaded areas and leave pristine roadless areas alone. There are 4,650 miles of existing roads and over 10 billion board feet of timber readily available" stated Veesart.
The order also rejected nearly every challenge raised by the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry lobby group.