, July 16, 2009 (ENS) - In a roadless area of Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service has awarded the first timber sale under the new so-called Vilsack policy. Due to a series of lawsuits and conflicting court orders on the Roadless Rule, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced in May that he would personally review and approve timber sales in roadless areas across the nation.
The Orion North timber sale awarded Monday to Pacific Log and Lumber of Ketchikan will produce some 3.8 million board feet of timber from 381 acres in Thorne Arm on Revillagigedo Island near Ketchikan.
Roughly two miles of roads will be constructed to facilitate the harvest of timber for the sale, which is adjacent to Misty Fjords National Monument.
In March, a coalition of five conservation groups filed a lawsuit challenging the proposed timber sale. They object because the logging would clean lands in the last major intact, roadless watershed remaining on Thorne Arm. The groups point out that the watershed provides important old-growth habitat connecting Misty Fjords National Monument with the coastal habitat along Thorne Arm.
Trees on Revillagigedo Island (Photo by Jeffrey Beall)
"The day when this kind of timber sale made sense is long gone," said Carol Cairnes, president of the board of the Ketchikan-based Tongass Conservation Society. "Cutting these trees will not even bring in half the money the Forest Service will spend building a road to get to the trees."
"The rest of Thorne Arm has already been hammered with clearcuts," said Cairnes. People in Ketchikan use this last pristine area for fishing, hiking, and family outings. The trees have more value standing than they do cut."
"The Orion North timber sale has been on the books for a decade. Since then, timber prices have plummeted while the costs of timber sales to taxpayers have skyrocketed," said Kate Glover, an attorney with Earthjustice, the law firm representing the conservation groups.
"There has also been a lot of new scientific research in that time. For example, we now know that deer habitat in Thorne Arm may barely be sufficient to support wolves and deer hunting," said Glover. "If the Forest Service keeps logging here, we could see restrictions on subsistence and recreational hunting in the future." But the district judge did not agree.
In June, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied an injunction to halt the timber sale.
Both of Alaska's senators applauded the timber sale. Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, said, “This sale will help support the struggling Southeast timber industry, which depends on responsible access to the Tongass for survival."
"This is good news for the industry and an ailing Southeast Alaska economy," said Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat.
"While this is a relatively small sale, it's a good first step for the Secretary's new policy," said Begich. "I appreciate Secretary Vilsack's willingness to look at the facts and draw the right conclusions. I look forward to helping him and the new Chief of the Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, get to know Alaska and the issues on our national forests, the two largest in the system."
"Given the existing court-approved settlement agreement between the state and the Forest Service on roadless areas in the Tongass, I would have been extremely concerned if Secretary Vilsack had blocked this timber sale," Murkowski said. "Instead, I am heartened that the secretary has recognized the importance of maintaining an environmentally sound timber industry in Southeast Alaska."
Pacific Log and Lumber of Ketchikan (Photo courtesy Seley Corp.)
Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo says the conservation groups' lawsuit challenging the Orion North timber sale is still before both the Alaska District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We have proceeded to brief the case in the Ninth Circuit and are waiting for the court to schedule a hearing," said Waldo, "and we are also pressing to get the case finally decided in the Alaska District court, which only denied the preliminary injunction."
Waldo says that the courts could halt the timber sale before logging begins.
"We could get the decision before they start logging," he told ENS. "They have built about a mile of the road and construction is ongoing but we don't expect clearcuts until next summer."
If logging goes ahead, the chainsaws would take a chunk out of a pristine roadless area, Waldo says. It's a valley of old growth that has never been logged, the only remaining intact watershed in this part of the Tongass National Forest around Thorne Arm. It has all attributes of roadless areas that provided the justifiction for the 2001 Roadless Rule's protection of 58.5 acres of national forest land."
Waldo and the plaintiff conservation groups have a broader concern - that President Barack Obama's appointees in the U.S. Department of Agriculture are "dangerously close" to violating the President' pledge to uphold and defend the 2001 Roadless Rule - a pledge he made both as a candidate and since he took office.
"Technically," said Waldo, "Orion North does not violate the Roadless Rule because it was grandfathered in. It had already had a final Environmental Impact Statement at the time the Roadless Rule was adopted."
But, said Waldo, "there are several other roadless rule timber sales in the pipeline and the administration has not provided any assurance that they will not grant those timber sales."
Waldo says that to end the threat of timber sales in roadless areas on national forests, the Obama administration needs to take action on two legal fronts.
He and the conservation groups would like to see the Obama administration appeal a 2008 decision in the Wyoming District Court that struck down the 2001 Roadless Rule. This ruling has already been appealed by conservation groups.
And the conservationists would like to see the Obama administration dismiss an appeal to the Ninth Circuit brought by the Bush administration of a California District Court judgement striking down the Bush timber sale program. That move replaced the 2001 Roadless Rule with a program that required state governors to individually request roadless status for national forests in their states.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.
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