Conservation groups scored a major win over the Trump administration’s effort to log old-growth trees in southeast Alaska, after a court deemed unlawful a federal plan for the iconic Tongass National Forest.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska on Wednesday ruled that the Forest Service violated multiple federal laws when it approved a broad management blueprint that would authorize future logging in the temperate rainforest without site-specific environmental review.
The agency plan in question focused on Prince of Wales Island, part of the Tongass that’s home to many Alaska Natives.
The ruling is a critical victory for environmentalists, who saw the government’s approach to Prince of Wales planning as a dangerous interpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act’s requirements.
“This was part of a nationwide effort by the Forest Service to shortcut the site-specific requirements of NEPA and other laws,” said Juneau-based Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo, who represented environmental groups in the case.
The Forest Service didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 16.7 million-acre Tongass is the largest national forest in the country, and lies at the center of a debate over the proper balance of logging and other interests on federal lands.
Judge Sharon L. Gleason ruled the Forest Service’s analysis had “serious shortcomings” under NEPA.
“The Forest Service has not yet taken the requisite hard look at the environmental impact of site-specific timber sales on Prince of Wales over the next 15 years,” she wrote, rejecting the agency’s decision to simply study maximum potential impacts.
Gleason, appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama, also concluded the plan violated the overarching Tongass forest plan and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protects the rights of subsistence hunters.
She ordered both sides to submit legal briefs on whether she should scrap the contested provisions entirely, or keep them in place while the Forest Service improves its analysis.
Parts of the Tongass have been logged for a century, but timber activity has dropped off in recent decades. The Trump administration is working to open more of the forest to development.
Forest Service Plan
The case centers on a landscape-level plan the Forest Service crafted to manage resources on Prince of Wales Island over 15 years.
The agency conducted an environmental impact statement and in 2019 adopted an approach that would allow logging of a maximum of 23,000 acres of old-growth and 19,000 acres of younger trees, plus the construction of 164 miles of roads.
The environmental analysis didn’t specify where the logging could occur but instead adopted a “condition-based” management approach, laying out criteria for the agency to make site-specific decisions in the future. The plan noted, however, that Forest Service officials wouldn’t need to conduct any further NEPA review for specific logging locations.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Alaska Rainforest Defenders, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the Alaska Wilderness League, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society, and the Center for Biological Diversity sued over the approach in May 2019.
The groups secured a preliminary injunction in September that blocked the Forest Service from carrying out a major timber sale tied to the disputed plan. The injunction will remain in place while the court considers whether to vacate the agency’s plan.
The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Law is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.
Waldo, the Earthjustice lawyer, said the ruling will affect other Forest Service approvals that relied on “condition-based management,” in which the agency outlines general criteria to govern future timber sales in an area, rather than identifying exact locations for projects and doing site-specific analysis.
Center for Biological Diversity attorney Ted Zukoski noted that the agency was using the same approach to support logging plans in the central Tongass and in forests in Oregon, Vermont, and other states.
“The Forest Service really put all their eggs in this condition-based management basket,” he said.
While other administrations used the approach on a small scale, Zukoski said, Trump officials have embraced it “as a way to lock in logging over huge areas over vast lengths of time.”
The Forest Service has defended the approach, saying the plan included enough information about potential timber harvest sites to fully evaluate potential impacts and alternative options, and considered the broadest possible impacts.
“In analyzing impacts from timber harvest activities in particular, the Service assumed that the maximum acres of harvest authorized under each alternative would be harvested by the most impactful clear-cut harvest methods, and that the maximum miles of road would be built, to ensure that all possible effects were considered,” government lawyers explained in a court brief last year.
If the agency decides to appeal Wednesday’s decision, the issue will go before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The case is Se. Alaska Conservation Council v. U.S. Forest Serv., D. Alaska, No. 1:19-cv-00006, 3/11/20.