Coalition files lawsuit challenging the largest timber sale in decades
By MARY KAUFFMAN
August 25, 2014
(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - A coalition of conservation groups filed suit Friday challenging the U.S. Forest Service decision to approve the Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales Island.
The conservation groups, Alaska Wilderness League, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, all represented by Earthjustice, sued asserting the Forest Service acted unlawfully in pushing through this massive sale based on a flawed market demand analysis that led the agency to grossly inflate the volume of needed timber.
“The Forest Service must rethink this massive old-growth logging if it is truly serious about transitioning to sustainable forest management in the Tongass. The Big Thorne sale threatens the salmon, wolves and other wildlife that help support the incredibly important recreation and subsistence economies of southeast Alaska; and it jeopardizes the vital ability of the forest to lessen the impacts of climate disruption that are already being felt around the world,” said Dan Ritzman, Alaska Program Director for Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign.
Conservation Director at Alaska Wilderness League Kristen Miller said, “This lawsuit is the result of continued mismanagement of the Tongass and its remaining old-growth forests. Inexplicably, the Forest Service has chosen to ignore the ecological damage Big Thorne will inflict on critical wildlife habitat. Right now the agency only has ears for the timber industry, and ignoring the harm this sale and others like it will have on the Tongass and the region’s vital fishing and tourism industries is simply not the way to run the nation’s largest and most unique national forest."
“Big Thorne is a big mistake,” said Malena Marvin with Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. “There is no reason to unlawfully liquidate the Tongass’s remaining big-tree deer habitat when we can be managing forests for hunting, community-scale forestry, and Southeast Alaska’s $2 billion/year fishing and tourism industries. It’s time to re-tool the Tongass for local jobs that support sustainable communities without hurting the fish and wildlife Alaskan families rely on.”
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) cautioned the U.S. Forest Service on Friday not to give in to threats of litigation from environmental activists determined to stop all responsible timber harvests on federal lands. The Big Thorne sale represents the last best hope for keeping what remains of Southeast’s timber mills in operation.
Murkowski voiced guarded optimism about the decision by the Forest Service to move forward with the long-promised Big Thorne Project in the Tongass National Forest.
“I am disappointed that the Forest Service has reduced the first sale from the Big Thorne project in the face of opposition from the environmental community,” Murkowski said. “The Big Thorne project is key to returning the Tongass to a working and healthy forest, and to ensuring that the timber mills in Southeast survive.”
Forest Service officials have chosen to drop multiple old growth harvest units – about 6 million board feet of timber – from the Big Thorne sale in an attempt to avoid a legal fight with environmental groups.
Forest Service officials cited comments from the Alaska office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that speculated that the sale of old-growth timber could harm deer populations on which the wolf on Prince of Wales Island feed as one reason for the changes. The Fish and Wildlife Service are mulling an endangerment listing for the Alexander Archipelago wolf on Prince of Wales Island.
“I expect the Forest Service to stand up and defend its decisions and not be cowed by threats to tie up the sale in the Ninth Circuit Court,” Murkowski said. “The weight of the evidence from state of Alaska and Forest Service biologists shows clearly that wolf habitat – and the deer the wolves prey upon – is not put at risk by additional logging on Prince of Wales Island.”
Biologists have determined that any downturn in wolf numbers is more likely to be caused by hunting and could be mitigated with appropriate regulations, education and improved enforcement according to Murkowski.
“Use of the Endangered Species Act as a cudgel to threaten legal action against every management decision related to our public lands hurts everyone,” Murkowski said. “If federal managers can no longer exercise their best judgment and expertise when making decisions then perhaps it’s time to consider reforming the law.”
Quoting a news release from Murkowski, the project, as originally proposed, would provide Southeast mills with 147 million board feet of timber – enough to see them through the Forest Service’s plan to transition future sales to young-growth trees. The first sale from the project is currently scheduled to be awarded at the end of September.
“It is vital that the Forest Service move heaven and earth to award the sale this September. The economic future of our timber mills and good paying timber jobs in Southeast Alaska are dependent on it,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski has been outspoken in her criticism of the Forest Service’s failure to increase the amount of timber cut annually in the Tongass. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has repeatedly testified to his commitment to improving the timber sale program, but so far nothing has changed.
Last year was not a good one for Southeast. Region 10 was the Forest Service’s worst performing region, with the agency meeting just 16.8 percent of its harvest target. The agency’s 2008 land management plan for the Tongass projected an annual timber sale program of up to 267 million board feet, but only about 35 million board feet have been harvested annually over the past decade, according to information provided by Murkowski.
“Despite repeated pledges from the Forest Service, we continue to see a steady marchtoward losing what remains of our timber industry,” Murkowski said. “Most of our mills have already closed. The few that have hung on are being starved out by the Forest Service’s inability to successfully complete sales of old-growth timber.”
Conservation groups say that allowing sales such as Big Thorne will not only continue the decimation of ancient old-growth in the Tongass and greatly increase the expanse of degraded wildlife habitat, but it could lead to the first ever endangered species listing of a wildlife species [Alexander Archipelago wolves ] in the Tongass under the Endangered Species Act.
Retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist David Person previously stated in a written declaration presented to the Forest Service, that “the predator-prey ecosystem, including wolves, on Prince of Wales Island is threatened with collapse because of the cumulative impacts of logging and logging roads.”
On the Web:
08/22/14 Big Thorne Complaint (33 pages, pdf)
Forest Service Announces Big Thorne Timber Project Decision By MARY KAUFFMAN - The Tongass National Forest announced its decision today to approve what has been the controversial Big Thorne timber sale. The U.S. Forest Service's decision to approve the Big Thorne timber sale will be the largest industrial project in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest since the pulp mill era. - More...
SitNews - August 21, 2014
Edited by Mary Kauffman
Source of News:
Office of U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski
Natural Resources Defense Council, 360-534-990,
Alaska Wilderness League
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, 907-586-6942, malena@
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