From E&E News
A federal judge in Alaska last Friday upheld the Forest Service’s controversial plan to allow more than 6,000 acres of old-growth trees to be logged in the Tongass National Forest, marking a major win for a local timber mill.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline clears the way for the Big Thorne project, which authorizes the sale of about 150 million board feet of timber, most of it old-growth. It is the largest-volume timber project approved in the 17-million-acre forest since 1993.
The project’s main timber contract has been awarded, and ground-disturbing activities could begin within weeks.
The 25-page ruling is a defeat for 10 environmental groups that filed three lawsuits late last summer challenging the logging project and the 2008 Tongass land-use plan. Groups warned that old-growth logging would ruin habitat for the Sitka black-tailed deer, which is a key food source for the imperiled Alexander Archipelago wolf and area hunters.
One coalition of plaintiffs included the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Alaska Wilderness League, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The other consisted of Cascadia Wildlands, the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Boat Co.
By targeting “most of the best remaining” mid- and low-elevation winter habitat for deer, the project will cause “irreparable harm” to hunters on Prince of Wales Island, said one of the lawsuits. All three suits were later consolidated.
Beistline rejected all of the groups’ claims.
He said the Forest Service had made a “reasonable” assessment of timber market demand, had properly explained why additional wolf population data was not necessary for the agency to make an informed decision, and had “appropriately exercised its discretion” on other issues.
He also found that the Forest Service’s review of its 2008 Tongass land-use plan “was ‘reasonably thorough’ and took the requisite hard look at the environmental consequence consistent with the requirements” of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice who represented a handful of the environmental plaintiffs in the case, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Alaska Forest Association, the state of Alaska, the city of Craig and Viking Lumber Co., which won the main logging contract, had each intervened in the case in defense of the Forest Service.