A coalition of Alaska Native, tourism industry, and environmental organizations had sued the federal government in December 2009, challenging the Bush-era exemption of the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule.
The decision in the case Organized Village of Kake v. U.S. Department of Agriculture strikes down the 2003 decision to "temporarily" exempt the Tongass from the national Roadless Rule.
Finalized during the last month of the Clinton administration, the Roadless Rule protects 58.5 million acres of inventoried backcountry throughout the national forest system.
Judge John Sedwick ruled that the Tongass Exemption was illegally adopted and his decision reinstates the Roadless Rule in the Tongass.
Wildlife viewing cabin on Anan Bay in the Tongass National Forest (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
"This protects remote backcountry areas all over the Tongass that are critical for tourism, fishing, hunting, customary uses, and for everyone who benefits from intact old growth forests in Southeast Alaska," said Tom Waldo of Earthjustice, who is co-counsel in the lawsuit along with Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Plaintiffs' primary arguments are that the Roadless Rule does not prevent construction of utility lines or roads to connect southeast Alaska communities, no job loss was attributable to the Roadless Rule, and the Tongass Exemption does not reduce legal uncertainty," wrote Judge Sedwick.
The State of Alaska and Alaska Forest Association intervened in the case on the side of the USDA's Forest Service, arguing that the Service reasonably considered existing protections of roadless values on the Tongass, impacts of the Roadless Rule on road and utility connections in southeast Alaska, economic impacts of the Roadless Rule, and the impacts of ongoing litigation against the Roadless Rule.
But Judge Sedwick sided with the native, tourism and environmental groups, writing, "Because the reasons proffered by the Forest Service in support of the Tongass Exemption were implausible, contrary to the evidence in the record, and contrary to Ninth Circuit precedent, the court concludes that promulgation of the Tongass Exemption was arbitrary and capricious."
"We brought this lawsuit to protect customary and traditional uses from damaging logging proposed by the Bush administration," said Mike Jackson, Organized Village of Kake. "For Tribal members, these lands are essential sources of food, medicine, clothing, and traditional items for artistic and spiritual use. Our deer hunting and other customary uses of the forest have suffered too much already from past logging."
Since its promulgation, the Roadless Rule has been the subject of numerous lawsuits in federal district courts in Idaho, Utah, North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, and the District of Columbia, and litigation is still before the courts.
Black bear and cub in the Tongass National Forest (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
In May 2001, the U.S. District Court in Idaho issued a preliminary injunction keeping the Forest Service from implementing the Roadless Rule nationwide. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the preliminary injunction, concluding that the Roadless Rule did not violate the National Environmental Policy Act. The Ninth Circuit's ruling was issued in April 2003, and the Roadless Rule went into effect nationwide.
After further complex litigation outlined in Judge Sedwick's ruling, in August 2008, the Wyoming district court again held that the Roadless Rule violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wilderness Act and permanently enjoined implementation of the Roadless Rule nationwide. The district court's decision is on appeal before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The plaintiff groups say Judge Sedwick's ruling is good news for thousands of people in southeast Alaska with jobs in tourism and fishing.
"There are more than 3,200 jobs in southeast Alaska in recreation and tourism," said Hunter McIntosh of The Boat Company, which operates a small tour business in the region. "And there are another 3,800 jobs in the seafood industry, which depends critically on salmon spawning streams in the old growth forests of the Tongass."
The court's decision will not cause job losses in the timber industry or other economic sectors, the groups say, because the Forest Service is not currently planning to proceed with any roadless area timber sales, but is in the midst of a transition away from old growth logging in the Tongass. "Nevertheless," the groups said in a joint statement, "the decision is extremely important to secure this transition and protect against any future backsliding."
The jduge specifically found no support for claims that the Roadless Rule hurt local communities and jobs. The rule allows for new highways and for power lines to connect communities in the region.
"The natural values of these watersheds are essential for the survival of small businesses around Southeast," explained Kent John of the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association. "Very few folks will pay to go see clearcuts and decaying logging roads. This is a great decision for the local economy."
Lindsey Ketchel of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council agreed, saying, "Intact areas of the Tongass National Forest are the foundation of our unparalleled Southeast Alaska quality of life and of the fish and wildlife that make this forest a global treasure."
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