The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear a last-ditch effort by the State of Alaska to exempt America's largest national forest from a national rule protecting undeveloped, road-free national forest areas from logging and road construction. The State sought to overturn a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that kept the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in effect in the vast Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. The Ninth Circuit agreed with a federal District Court in Alaska that the Bush administration improperly exempted the Tongass from that landmark conservation measure.
A coalition including the Organized Village of Kake (a federally recognized Alaska Native tribe), tourism businesses, and conservationists joined the federal government in urging the Supreme Court to leave the lower court rulings intact.
"Today's court order is great news for Southeast Alaska and for all those who visit this spectacular place," said Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo. "The remaining wild and undeveloped parts of the Tongass are important wildlife habitat and vital to local residents for hunting, fishing, recreation, and tourism, the driving forces of the local economy. The Supreme Court's decision means that America's biggest national forest—the Tongass—will continue to benefit from a common-sense rule that applies nationwide."
"It feels terrific to put this case to bed once and for all," added Niel Lawrence, senior attorney and Alaska Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Punching clearcuts and logging roads into America's last great rainforest wildland produced nothing but controversy, conflict, and uncertainty. The region can now move ahead on a path that benefits from and sustains the fabulous natural values that attract people to the Tongass. And all Americans can celebrate, knowing that wefll pass on the crown jewel of national forests to future generations as wild and wonderful as it is today."
"Southeast Alaska has moved on," said Buck Lindekugel, Grassroots Attorney for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. "Clearcutting old-growth forests in the remote wildlands of our region, with expensive new logging roads no one can afford to maintain, is a thing of the past. We are pleased to see the Supreme Court put this issue to rest and call on the State of Alaska to do the same."
"The Supreme Court's decision today is a victory for wildlife in the Tongass National Forest, the state of Alaska, the region and the nation," said Peter Nelson, senior policy advisor for federal lands for Defenders of Wildlife. "The Roadless Rule protects the wildlands that form the heart of America's largest national forest within the most expansive temperate rainforest in the world. Future generations will now have the opportunity to experience the majesty of this ecosystem and the salmon, bears, wolves, birds and the myriad wildlife that depend on it."
"The Roadless Rule protects our intact ancient forests that salmon, bears, and wolves depend upon. Alaska's temperate rainforest is a treasure and today's decision will help keep the Tongass protected from more logging and destruction," said Marc Fink, Senior Attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
"We're pleased to see the Roadless Rule upheld again. Over the past decade we've seen that the rule works. It has protected millions of acres of forests across the country, ensuring that both wildlife and American families have space to live and explore. In the face of a rapidly changing climate, protecting forests like the Tongass is even more important," said Alli Harvey, with the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign in Alaska. "It's common sense to protect this wild national icon for future generations to enjoy."
The so-called "Roadless Rule" was designed to protect "large, relatively undisturbed landscapes" in national forests from logging roads and clear-cuts, while allowing other economic development—including hydropower projects, transmission lines, tourism, federally-financed public roads, and even mining—to continue.
Today's ruling is good news for the many residents of the region and local businesses who use and depend on the Tongass' outstanding natural values, as well as visitors who come to see America's last great rainforest, teeming with fish and wildlife that thrive in its undeveloped roadless areas. Little practical change is expected, however, since even when the Bush-era exemption was in effect, cost and controversy kept almost all logging out of roadless areas. And last year, a federal advisory committee including representatives of the timber industry and the State formally and unanimously recommended against further logging of those wildlands.
The 17 million-acre Tongass spans 500 miles of coastal Southeast Alaska, encompassing alpine meadows, deep fjords, calving glaciers, dense old-growth rainforest, and over 1,000 islands and islets.
After much debate and hundreds of thousands of comments, in 2001, the Agriculture Department decided that the Roadless Rule should apply to the Tongass but included special measures to blunt the impact of the rule on Alaska's timber industry. Not applying the rule, the department found, "would risk the loss of important roadless values" in the Tongass.
When the Bush administration reversed course and tried to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, it relied on factual findings at odds with those that justified its original decision and ignored the economic mitigation package for the Tongass. It asserted, without support, that the rule was not needed to protect Tongass wildlands and would cause widespread economic hardship.
The Ninth Circuit's ruling—and today's decision by the Supreme Court not to review that ruling—reinforced the settled rule that federal agencies cannot arbitrarily change policies and ignore previous factual findings simply because a new president has taken office.
Attorneys from Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council represent the following groups in the case: Organized Village of Kake, The Boat Company, Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Natural Resources Defense Council, Tongass Conservation Society, Greenpeace, Wrangell Resource Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Cascadia Wildlands, and Sierra Club.