The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Forest Service to stop a logging project in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest that calls for bulldozing new roads into a pristine roadless area in order to log it. The court granted an injunction pending appeal that stops the roadbuilding and logging until at least next year when it can decide the merits of the case. In granting the injunction, the federal appeals court found that the Forest Service appears to have violated the law when it approved the logging plan. The violation the court focused on is one in which the Forest Service is required to analyze market demand for Tongass logs. The court found that the Forest Service admitted making a substantial mistake, saying, “It is not disputed that the Forest Service…made an error in interpreting an important report prepared by the agency’s economists concerning market demand for timber during the tenure of the plan. The mistake doubled the economists’ estimates of demand.” The court further recognized that, had the agency correctly understood market demand, it would have been possible to provide timber to the industry without entering sensitive roadless areas like those at issue in the case.
“These are not small mistakes. Impacts of these errors are felt all over the Tongass, in places where Alaskans struggle to safeguard their hunting grounds, fisheries, and business opportunities,” said Bruce Baker, President of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council’s Board of Directors, and former Deputy Director of Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Habitat Division
“The Forest Service shouldn’t be building expensive new roads in the Tongass when there are so many other options available,” said Tom Waldo, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the plaintiffs in the case.
The injunction temporarily stops construction of a new road that is part of the Sea Level timber sale project. Sea Level Creek is the last intact watershed in Thorne Arm on the south side of Revilla Island.
“The Sea Level watershed has important salmon and steelhead runs, but the issues here are much larger,” said Baker. “Time and time again, people have told the Forest Service to ‘protect our wild watersheds’. Instead, the agency has continued to push new roads and timber sales into places like Upper Tenakee Inlet, Gravina Island, and Port Houghton. The truth of the mater is that there’s plenty of Tongass timber on the existing 5,000 mile road system.”
The Forest Service’s own analysis has shown that there is enough timber on the existing road system to log at double current logging levels in perpetuity. The Forest Service recently announced that it would be offering a number of timber sales on existing roads – not challenged in any litigation – that will provide sufficient timber to keep the mills operating in the coming year. Logging will also continue on land owned by the State of Alaska, Mental Health Land Trust, Native corporations and others.
“Claims made by the Forest Service and Governor Murkowski that litigation is creating a supply crunch are fiction,” said SEACC’s Emily Ferry.
The court agreed saying, “had the Forest Service thought demand was only one half of what it assumed, it might have planned to satisfy timber industry needs on property less environmentally sensitive than that at issue here.”
Bruce Baker continued, “As long-standing residents of Southeast, we’re saying ‘if you’re going to log, do it right. Follow the laws, don’t mislead the public, and stay out of wild river valleys’. We’re going to keep saying it in as many ways as we can. It’s unfortunate that the agency has left no option for the people who hunt, fish, and use these places but to rely on the judicial review.”
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