The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled that the Forest Service must correct serious problems in the 1997 Tongass National Forest Land Management Plan. The challenge to the 1997 Forest Plan by conservation organizations centers 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 this 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.
"This is a victory for all Americans because it will give people a chance to see our biggest and most wild national forest in its natural state," said Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo.
The court's decision states, "Common sense ... tells us that the Forest Service's assessment of market demand was important for its determination . . . of 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."
"The Forest Service admits to mistakenly doubling the estimated amount of timber needed for the industry. The result is a lot of unnecessary timber sales targeting controversial lands that are causing real harm to local communities, businesses, and tribes," said Beth Antonsen, a furniture and boat builder and life long resident of Ketchikan.
"The Tongass timber program is being driven by numbers that have no basis in reality," said Buck Lindekugel, staff attorney at the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. "Less than fifty million board feet of timber have been cut annually over the last four years, yet the Forest Service tries to make available more than three times that amount every year. This court case should bring responsible management back to the Forest Service's timber program."
Between 1998 and 2004, the Forest Service offered 104 new timber sales; almost 50 percent of the sales did not sell and 70 percent of those that did had only a single bidder. Furthermore, after Senator Stevens passed an appropriations rider allowing timber operators to return "unprofitable" sales to the Forest Service, 20 sales were returned. Together, the returned sales total 120 million board feet, or enough timber to supply the industry for 2.5 years at recent cutting rates.
"According to the Forest Service's latest data, there is enough timber in the existing roaded areas of the Tongass to log up to 96 million board-feet per year in perpetuity. This is more than double the logging levels that have prevailed over the last four years. It is not necessary to sell timber in roadless areas to provide a sufficient supply to the existing mills," commented Gordon Chew of Tenakee Springs. Logging also continues on land owned by the State of Alaska, Mental Health Land Trust, University of Alaska, Native corporations, and others; however, most of this wood is exported for manufacturing, along with the associated jobs, to other countries.
"It is simply not prudent to target so many beautiful and pristine places for logging," said Scott Ownbey, owner of Shinaku Charters, a sport fishing business in Craig. "Tourism and recreation businesses depend on the beauty and wildlife of the Tongass and they provide many more jobs than logging does. And a healthy Tongass is only going to get more valuable as more and more people come here to see it."
The Forest Service's own data indicate that a tree is worth approximately 30 times more if left standing than cut. (2003 Tongass Roadless Supplement Environmental Impact Statement at 3-300.)
The Ninth Circuit sent the case back to the Alaska District Court to decide what specific injunctive relief will be provided pending Forest Service correction of the Forest Plan to determine an appropriate amount of suitable timber lands that is consistent with reasonable estimates of market demand for Tongass timber.
"This court decision gives the Forest Service the opportunity to design a timber sale program that truly respects multiple use on the Tongass by safeguarding those lands important for community use, recreation, fishing, hunting, and tourism from road building and logging. These lands include the Cleveland Peninsula and Gravina Island near Ketchikan, Port Houghton and Farragut Bay near Petersburg, East Kuiu and Three Mile Arm near Kake, Tenakee Inlet, and Uskh Bay, Poison Cove, and Deep Bay near Sitka," said Lindekugel.
Earthjustice represented Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society, Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and National Audubon Society.
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