Whether an injunction against logging in the Tongass National Forest is needed and what form it should take will be the subject of a federal court hearing in Anchorage on Thursday morning.
Attorneys representing environmental groups, the U.S. Forest Service, the timber industry and Southeast Alaska communities are expected to take part in oral arguments before U.S. District Judge James Singleton.
In a March court order, the judge stopped the Forest Service from altering the wilderness character of any eligible Tongass roadless area until the agency complied with the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act.
In response, the Forest Service halted logging on eligible roadless areas of the Tongass for several weeks. Singleton lifted the injunction in May, pending a hearing on the issue.
In the meantime, the Forest Service has began working on a draft supplemental environmental impact statement to evaluate roadless areas of the Tongass for wilderness designation, per the court order. A final plan should be finished later this year.
Forest Service attorney Jim Ustasiewski said the focus of Thursday's hearing will be what happens this operating season as the agency finishes work on the supplemental environmental impact statement.
"The argument tomorrow is really about whether the law requires or even allows for an injunction while this additional review is going on," he said.
Under federal law, the Forest Service doesn't need to manage roadless areas as wilderness while it is revising its forest plan, he said. If the court issues an injunction, it should be narrowly tailored, the agency said.
But environmental groups have argued in court documents that an injunction is appropriate and any resulting economic harm will be small. The Forest Service and the timber industry "overreacted and wildly exaggerated" the effect of the injunction when it was imposed last year, said Tom Waldo, an attorney with environmental law firm Earthjustice's Juneau office. The firm is representing the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Alaska Center for the Environment and the Sitka Conservation Society in the suit.
"It's clear that even with the injunction there's sufficient timber available for all of the mills to keep operating," Waldo said.
The environmental groups are asking the judge to reinstate the logging injunction with two "minor concessions" to avoid disruption to Pacific Log and Lumber's operations in Ketchikan, Waldo said.
In court documents, Attorney Jim Clark of Juneau said re-issuing the injunction will result in additional harm to the timber industry and communities. Clark represents the Alaska Forest Association, Concerned Alaskans For Resources and the Environment and the communities of Metlakatla and Coffman Cove.
Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham said his group doesn't want to see an injunction.
"It would dry up all of the economic timber that's available to our industry and will put our sawmills and a lot of people out of work instantly," he said.
The Southeast Conference and the communities of Ketchikan, Wrangell and Craig also are a part of the suit.
The Forest Service partially completed a review of wilderness in the Tongass Land Management Plan, but it was halted after Congress designated additional wilderness areas in the 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act, according to the agency.
An evidentiary hearing in the wilderness case has been scheduled Feb. 13-15 in Juneau.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.