Trump Plan to Log Biggest National Forest Struck Down by Court

Thursday, March 12, 2020

A federal judge yesterday rejected the Trump administration’s enormous commercial timber harvest and road-building plan for Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass National Forest of southeast Alaska, home to the rare Alexander Archipelago wolf.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska on Wednesday ruled that the Forest Service violated multiple federal laws when it approved a broad management blueprint that would authorize future logging in the temperate rainforest without site-specific environmental review.

The Prince of Wales Landscape Level Analysis (POWLLA), green-washed by the Forest Service as being an effort to “improve forest ecosystem health” was, in reality, a massive and destructive timber project—a 15-year logging scheme on a 1.8 million acre project area.

Over 200 million board feet of old-growth Tongass National Forest timber on Prince of Wales would have been logged over the next 10 years. Thank you to everyone who spoke out against this disastrous plan. Yesterday’s court decision upholds the rights of all Americans to weigh in on where logging occurs on our public lands. Once again, Judge Sharon L. Gleason defended these irreplaceable wild lands.

The Tongass National Forest is one of the few remaining old-growth temperate rainforests worldwide with breathtaking stands of ancient trees, many of which are approaching 1,000 years in age. The forests provide vital habitat for many species including Alexander Archipelago Wolves and their prey, Sitka black-tailed deer. Over the course of just 50 years, commercial logging harvested a shocking amount of the contiguous high-volume old-growth forest on Prince of Wales, a total of 94 percent by 2004.

The ruling is a critical victory for environmentalists, who saw the government’s approach to Prince of Wales planning as a dangerous interpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirements.

“What the court has cut short is flagrant attempts by the Forest Service to trample not only the remaining old-growth forest on Southeast Alaska’s most heavily-logged major island, but also NEPA, which is America’s bedrock law for protecting the environment from contrived decision-making,” said Larry Edwards of the regional organization Alaska Rainforest Defenders.

“This was part of a nationwide effort by the Forest Service to shortcut the site-specific requirements of NEPA and other laws,” said Juneau-based Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo, who represented environmental groups in the case.

The Forest Service didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The 16.7 million-acre Tongass is the largest national forest in the country, and lies at the center of a debate over the proper balance of logging and other interests on federal lands.

“Serious Shortcomings”

Judge Sharon L. Gleason ruled the Forest Service’s analysis had “serious shortcomings” under NEPA.

“The Forest Service has not yet taken the requisite hard look at the environmental impact of site-specific timber sales on Prince of Wales over the next 15 years,” she wrote, rejecting the agency’s decision to simply study maximum potential impacts.

Gleason, appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama, also concluded the plan violated the overarching Tongass forest plan and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protects the rights of subsistence hunters.

She ordered both sides to submit legal briefs on whether she should scrap the contested provisions entirely, or keep them in place while the Forest Service improves its analysis.

Parts of the Tongass have been logged for a century, but timber activity has dropped off in recent decades. The Trump administration is working to open more of the forest to development.

Forest Service Plan

The case centers on a landscape-level plan the Forest Service crafted to manage resources on Prince of Wales Island over 15 years.

The agency conducted an environmental impact statement and in 2019 adopted an approach that would allow logging of a maximum of 23,000 acres of old-growth and 19,000 acres of younger trees, plus the construction of 164 miles of roads.

The environmental analysis didn’t specify where the logging could occur but instead adopted a “condition-based” management approach, laying out criteria for the agency to make site-specific decisions in the future. The plan noted, however, that Forest Service officials wouldn’t need to conduct any further NEPA review for specific logging locations.

The Forest Service has defended the approach, saying the plan included enough information about potential timber harvest sites to fully evaluate potential impacts and alternative options, and considered the broadest possible impacts.

“In analyzing impacts from timber harvest activities in particular, the Service assumed that the maximum acres of harvest authorized under each alternative would be harvested by the most impactful clear-cut harvest methods, and that the maximum miles of road would be built, to ensure that all possible effects were considered,” government lawyers explained in a court brief last year.

If the agency decides to appeal Wednesday’s decision, the issue will go before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The case is Se. Alaska Conservation Council v. U.S. Forest Serv., D. Alaska, No. 1:19-cv-00006, 3/11/20.

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