Federal judge halts Tongass timber sale on Prince of Wales Island

The estuary of Keete Inlet on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Photo credit: © Erika Nortemann/TNC

A federal judge has blocked a Southeast timber sale on Prince of Wales Island challenged by a coalition of conservationists. The ruling effectively puts the brakes on the federal government’s plan for logging in the Tongass National Forest.

At this month’s Southeast Conference meeting in Sitka, the U.S. Forest Service pledged more of the Tongass would come online for logging to feed local mills.

Deputy Forester Jerry Ingersoll complained past timber sales had been held up.

We’d get litigated, we’d finally get through the process, we’d only have a little bit of timber at the end of it,” he told the meeting of business and civic leaders on September 18.

That’s why he says the Forest Service has started its controversial landscape level analysis to clear environmental hurdles.

“We’ve taken a new approach these last couple of years,” he told the forum.

This new approach is a streamlined process: one, large sweeping environmental analysis that combines the potential activities that could happen over a given area.

But logging critics like attorney Buck Lindekugel with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council say this isn’t legal.

They were withholding site-specific information from the public until after they made a decision,” Lindekugel said by phone on Monday. “And that’s just the wrong way under the National Environmental Policy Act.

His comments came just hours after a federal judge sided with this reasoning. SEACC was among eight conservation groups that filed a federal lawsuit this May challenging the forest service’s approach.

Federal Judge Sharon L. Gleason noted in granting an injunction that the federal agency hadn’t shown where logging would occur or roads would be built until after its decision was made.

She ordered the 1,156-acre Twin Mountain Timber Sale suspended.

The judge cited a federal case from the 1980s in Tenakee Springs. Back then, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Forest Service’s environmental review had to include specific enough information for meaningful public participation.

The Forest Service declined to comment, citing the open litigation.

Lindekugel called the district court’s ruling a win for local residents.

“It’s big news for all the people on Prince of Wales who were struggling to understand the impacts of this proposed decision on their uses of the forest,” he said.

The Point Baker Community Association on the northern end of Prince of Wales Island had objected to the timber sale over fears it would destroy deer habitat that’s important for subsistence hunters.

It had urged the federal agency to heed the advice of Alaska Department of Fish and Game habitat biologists who raised broad concerns over habitat loss.

The injunction is only temporary. But it is timely as bids from the Twin Mountain Timber Sale were slated to be unsealed this week. Ground breaking on road construction could have started as early as Friday.

Eric Nichols, an owner of Alcan Forest Products in Ketchikan, says the court’s injunction will delay timber sales until early next year.

“There’s just no other timber available for sale at this point in time out there,” he said by phone on Monday. “So it’s going to have some very difficult aspects to the timber industry here in Southeast.”

The judge’s ruling does not close the door on the Forest Service’s landscape level analysis approach for timber sales.

The Forest Service is using this approach not just on Prince of Wales Island but also Central Tongass near Petersburg and Wrangell and South Revilla near Ketchikan.

At last week’s Southeast Conference, Deputy Forester Jerry Ingersoll says they could help boost timber supply to feed Alaska’s timber indstry.

“If those three projects go through and are successful and survive litigation,” Ingersoll said ahead of Monday’s ruling, “we will have a decade’s worth of planning complete.”

But it appears the Forest Service has failed at least its first major legal test. In her order, Judge Gleason said she planned to rule on the broader question over whether the Forest Service can rely on landscape level analysis for environmental reviews, no later than March 31, 2020.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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