Eight conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service this week in an attempt to stop a record-breaking timber project from starting up in Southeast Alaska.
The Forest Service has been working to offer more than 200 million board feet of Tongass old-growth timber over the next 15 years, and the process is nearing completion. The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, asserts that the Forest Service is violating the National Environmental Policy Act and failing to comply with the Forest Service’s own Tongass Management Plan by moving so quickly.
On its website, the Forest Service has described the project — called the Prince of Wales Landscape Level Analysis Project (POW LLA) — as aiming to “improve forest ecosystem health” and to “provide economic development through an integrated approach to meet multiple resource objectives.”
Environmental groups have been skeptical of this explanation, saying that the sale would pave the way for old-growth logging and road-building throughout the region. Conservation advocates have said this would be the largest timber sale in the United States in decades. The Forest Service has approved 67 square miles of logging on Prince of Wales Island, according to a release from conservation groups Tuesday, but has not decided where exactly the logging will take place.
Without a specific plan in place, Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo said in the release, it’s impossible for the Forest Service to adequately assess the project’s impact.
“The uninformed approach by the Forest Service — approving this mammoth sale before even figuring out the details — is blatantly unlawful,” Waldo said in the release. “This throwback to an old way of doing business is unacceptable and contrary to decades of court decisions.”
Forest Service spokespeople did not comment on the lawsuit. The Forest Service is currently accepting public comment on the project until May 13. People can upload comments to the Forest Service’s website at https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?project=50337.
Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, is representing Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Alaska Rainforest Defenders, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Alaska Wilderness League, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Audubon Society, and the Center for Biological Diversity in this lawsuit.
Earthjustice has been fighting this sale for a while, having filed a formal objection to the project in December. Environmentalists have argued that large-scale logging and road-building would damage wildlife habitat, impact sport and subsistence hunters and recreational use of the forests.
The proposed sale has earned the attention of organizations throughout the country. Alli Harvey, from the California-based environmental organization Sierra Club, said the Tongass has national importance.
“Tongass National Forest is the crown jewel of our nation’s forest system and it’s no place for logging,” Harvey, Alaska representative for Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, said in the release. “An accurate environmental review would have made it clear that this sale would be a threat to Alaska’s extraordinary environment and our tourism and recreation economy and should never take place.”
Conservation advocates have also argued that logging is not the economic driver that some think it might be. The timber industry currently accounts for less than 1 percent of jobs in the region, according to the annual Southeast by the Numbers report from Southeast Conference and Rain Coast Data.
This project comes at a time when state and federal officials are looking to change regulations relating to construction in Alaska’s forests. The 2001 Roadless Rule blocks construction of new roads on areas including millions of acres of the Tongass, and the State of Alaska and the Forest Service have been in talks about adapting the rule since this summer.
Environmental groups recently scored a win in a decade-long legal battle with the Forest Service. In early December, a federal court invalidated four logging projects in the Tongass that would have cut about 33 million board feet of timber from old-growth forest.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.