Challenge to Tongass timber sale on Prince of Wales Island upheld in court

An aerial shot of Prince of Wales Island. (Photo by KRBD)

A federal judge has ruled in favor of green groups challenging the largest Tongass timber sale in decades.

U.S. District Judge Sharon L. Gleason’s Wednesday decision keeps in place her injunction blocking the first phase of a 15-year plan to open up 23,269 acres on Prince of Wales Island to old-growth logging.

“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,” Gleason wrote in her 50-page decision.

Oral arguments last month pitted the U.S. Justice Department verses Juneau-based Earthjustice attorneys. Government lawyers argued the project is needed to sustain the local timber industry.

But the environmentalists’ lawsuit alleged the Forest Service didn’t offer site-specific information on where logging would occur. The judge agreed. She ruled that the federal agency’s reliance of a “landscape level analysis” violated multiple federal laws and was inconsistent with the agency’s 2016 Tongass Forest Plan because it didn’t offer specific information on what would be logged.

“It’s the biggest timber sale the Forest Service has approved in any national forest in the last 30 years,” Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo told CoastAlaska. “They tried to shortcut the whole process by not saying where the trees would actually be cut, and the court held that that violated multiple laws.”

But the judge stopped short of completely throwing out the project, allowing the Forest Service to file an additional brief. That’s because the federal agency argued cutting off the timber supply would harm business in the region.

Messages left Wednesday seeking comment from the U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Forest Association weren’t immediately returned.

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