Tongass in Alaska to get federal roadless protection
The federal rule protecting the nation's last remaining stretches of roadless wilderness will apply now to the largest and grandest of the national forests under a court ruling in Alaska, which threw out the exemption granted to the Tongass National Forest.
Ruling in Anchorage, U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick invalidated an exemption crafted under the Bush administration that had been intended to boost the crippled timber industry in Southeast Alaska by allowing access to stands of timber in remote sections of the forest.
The Tongass, stretching over 17 million acres of emerald islands and azure waterways, has long been prized for its stunning stands of towering old-growth trees, which also are home to bears, wolves, salmon, bald eagles and other wildlife.
"The Tongass exemption reflected an outdated policy of building these extremely expensive roads into wilderness and remote areas of the Tongass just to log out the last valuable stands of old growth that still remained in the forest," said Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice, which helped argue the case.
Regulations protecting many of the nation's roadless areas, originally put forward under the administration of President Bill Clinton, have been batted back and forth in the courts for years. A special exemption was carved out for the Tongass National Forest, which had a management plan in place protecting much of its remaining old-growth trees and guaranteeing a supply of timber to the region's dying timber industry.
But conservationists argued there was plenty of timber available, and some of the other justifications for exempting the forest from roadless area protections were unnecessary. The judge agreed, rejecting, for example, the assertion that applying the roadless rule in Southeast Alaska could result in the loss of 900 jobs. The rule itself contained provisions for a "smooth transition for forest-dependent communities," the judge noted.
It also allowed several previously approved timber sale and road construction projects to move forward, he said, providing a certain number of jobs.
"The Forest Service's explanation that temporarily exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule was necessary to prevent significant job losses is not supported by the evidence," the judge said.
Likewise, he said, the exemption "did not provide any evidence in support of its bald assertion that the Roadless Rule significantly limits the ability of communities in Southeast Alaska to develop road and utility connections."
Portions of three timber sales had been proposed in roadless areas of the forest. But under the Obama administration, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture is conducting independent reviews on all proposed roadless timber sales, and on that basis, Judge Sedwick declined to vacate the pending sales.
"Fortunately, the Forest Service is not pursuing those kind of timber sales anymore. Now they're looking at smaller projects on the existing road system that make more sense for local communities," Waldo said.
The suit was brought by a coalition of Alaskan Natives, tourism industry representatives and environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.
"We brought this lawsuit to protect customary and traditional uses from damaging logging proposed by the Bush administration," Mike Jackson of the village of Kake, said in a statement. "For tribal members, these lands are essential sources of food, medicine, clothing and traditional items for artistic and spiritual use."
Hunter McIntosh of the Boat Co., a small tour business in the region, said large numbers of jobs in tourism and fishing will outweigh any job losses in timber.
The state of Alaska had intervened in the suit, arguing that the exemption from the roadless rule was necessary to protect valuable timber jobs in the region.
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