U.S. District Judge John Sedwick issued an injunction late Monday halting the Orion North timber sale in the Tongass National Forest. The court ordered the Forest Service to reevaluate the project because the costs for the timber sale have skyrocketed since the project was proposed a decade ago while revenues have dropped dramatically.
The Orion North project was planned in an ecologically rich, roadless area at the heart of the Sea Level Creek watershed, the last remaining roadless watershed in Thorne Arm, on Revilla Island near Ketchikan in the Tongass National Forest. The sale would have required 6 miles of new roads to clear-cut 4.3 million board-feet of old-growth forest.
The central issue in the case was a Final Environmental Impact Statement developed more than ten years ago, in May 1999. Timber economics in the region have changed dramatically in the last decade as the bottom has fallen out of Tongass timber markets. Costs for road building have soared while revenues from timber sales have plummeted, resulting in huge taxpayer subsidies not disclosed in the 1999 FEIS.
This Orion North plan would have cost taxpayers $1,579,880 to build roads into a pristine area for a timber sale in a national forest that would generate only $140,635 for the trees. This expense would cost taxpayers nearly 11 times the revenues generated by the sale.
“Timber sales like this one in a roadless area of the Tongass are a waste of taxpayer money,” said Kate Glover of Earthjustice Alaska who represented the coalition of groups who challenged this sale. “This decision protects one of the last pristine areas in the Thorne Arm, the trees have more value standing than cut down.”
Carol Cairnes of the Tongass Conservation Society praised the decision and stated, “We hope the Obama administration will realize that building roads for timber sales in roadless areas of the Tongass doesn’t pencil out. It’s time to protect the roadless areas of the Tongass by ending the Tongass exemption to the roadless rule.”
Larry Edwards of Greenpeace echoed the sentiment, stating, “We should not spend one more dollar on timber sales like this one. It’s time to put taxpayer money into projects that make more sense and provide needed jobs on the Tongass like in stream restoration, culvert repairs and other backlogged road maintenance, and eradication of invasive plants.”
“Clearcutting old growth in a roadless area made little sense in 1999, but makes even less sense today,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Biodiversity and carbon reserves should be protected in the face of climate disruption, not liquidated for dubious economic purposes.”
“Failing to accurately inform the public about the cost of Tongass timber sales is the common practice in almost all roadless timber sales, and the Forest Service needs to come clean on this issue,” said Mark Rorick, Chair Juneau Group Sierra Club.
Earthjustice attorneys represented Tongass Conservation Society, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, Center for Biological Diversity, and Cascadia Wildlands Project in this case.
Read the court decision (PDF)