Court rebuffs conservation groups, upholds timber sales in Tongass National Forest

By Mary Pemberton, AP
Monday, May 3, 2010

Court upholds timber sales in Tongass Nat’l Forest

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Two conservation groups have failed to stop four timber sale offerings they say threaten a rare species of wolf that lives in the Tongass National Forest.

Greenpeace and Cascadia Wildlands Project filed a lawsuit two years ago accusing the U.S. Forest Service of violating federal environmental laws when planning for the sales.

Together, the timber sales amount to 30 million board-feet of Tongass timber — about the same as was harvested last year from the nation’s largest national forest.

U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline found no wrongdoing on the part of the Forest Service, describing the problem as more of a “scientific disagreement” rather than an error by the agency. He said the Forest Service conducted an extensive environmental analysis of the four projects in the national forest that covers about 26,500 square miles — more than the entire state of West Virginia.

Tongass Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole said Monday that the timber industry has changed since the projects were planned with the idling of another mill in southeast Alaska.

Pacific Log and Lumber, one of the mills that might have been interested in the largest of the timber sales, is no longer operating on Gravina Island. The company’s website says, “Extreme pressure from environmental groups combined with the inability of the Forest Service to implement change rapidly has resulted in insufficient log supply to sustain milling operations on a continuous basis.”

Cole said that generally when timber sales face legal challenges, they are not put up for bid until those issues are resolved. He said he’s glad the legal issues have been resolved for now.

“I am pleased to be out of District Court and at a place to at least look at what opportunities we have available,” Cole said.

Greenpeace and Cascadia Wildlands sought a court order to stop the projects, named Scott Peak, Overlook, Traitors Cove and Soda Nick. They are considering appealing to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We think the ruling is full of holes,” said Larry Edwards, with Greenpeace. “The basic problem is that the agency tried to give these projects an undeserved easy pass.”

The conservation groups said the Forest Service made a mistake when evaluating how many deer the land can support in order to maintain the area’s Alexander Archipelago wolves, a subspecies of timber wolf found only in southeast Alaska.

The groups estimate that there are between 750 and 1,100 Alexander Archipelago wolves.

Edwards said the agency has been on notice since 2005 that it was applying the method for assessing deer-carrying capacity incorrectly. The result is that the projects overestimate the capacity of the land to sustain Sitka black-tailed deer, the primary prey animal of the wolves, he said.

The judge found that the Forest Service relied on the “reasonable opinions of its own experts” when making its deer assessments.

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