Moss covers old growth trees along Auke Lake on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Moss covers old growth trees along Auke Lake on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Review must be site-specific.

Forest Service environmental review process was insufficient, court says

A federal court ruled against a proposed timber sale on Prince of Wales Island, saying the U.S. Forest Service had failed to meet the review standards for the sale set but the National Environmental Protection Act.

Plaintiffs in the case argued the Forest Service failed to do the site-specific analysis required by NEPA in their Environmental Impact Statement. An Alaska District Court Judge Sharon Gleason agreed.

“NEPA requires that environmental analysis be specific enough to ensure informed decision making and meaningful public participation,” Gleason wrote in her opinion. “The Project EIS’s omission of the actual location of proposed timber harvest and road construction within the Project Area falls short of that mandate.”

The Forest Service’s sale used what they called “activity cards” for the different parcels that would eventually be auctioned. Those cards gave details on the various activities that could take place on a particular parcel. But those cards did not identify the exact areas which would be impacted, plaintiffs argued, and thus the Forest Service’s review of potential impacts was insufficient.

[Prince of Wales timber sale goes to court]

Plaintiffs in the case were Juneau-based environmental group Southeast Alaska Conservation Council who were represented by lawyers from environmentally focused nonprofit law firm Earthjustice.

At a Feb. 7, hearing in the Robert Boochever U.S. Courthouse at the Hurff Ackerman Saunders Federal Building in downtown Juneau, Earthjustice lawyer Tom Waldo argued the use of activity cards was both insufficient and would create and dangerous precedent for environmental review.

“The EIS doesn’t disclose the location of any timber sale or any roads to be logged over the next 15 years on Prince of Wales Island, and that is completely inadequate for an EIS. No court has ever upheld an EIS with so little detail,” Waldo told reporters following the hearing.

Erika Norman, trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice representing the Forest Service argued the review process for the activity cards was thorough and rigorous.

“The Forest Service has analyzed the overall plan for the project, they have analyzed every logging scenario that could be implemented,” Norman said.

But the court disagreed.

“The Forest Service contends that the EIS provides the specificity required by NEPA because it identifies potential areas of harvest within the project area,” Gleason wrote. “Here, the Project EIS does not identify individual harvest units; by only identifying broad areas within which harvest may occur, it does not fully explain to the public how or where actual timber activities will affect localized habitats.”

SEACC had argued the activity cards had circumvented public input by not designating exactly where timber harvest would take place. In a statement, SEACC Executive Director Meredith Trainor said the process should not be a “guessing game.”

“Today’s court decision upholds the rights of Southeast Alaskans to weigh in on where logging happens not once our lands are changed forever,” she said.

Paul Robbins, Forest Service public affairs officer for the Tongass National Forest declined to comment as the litigation was still ongoing.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or psegall@juneauempire.com.

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