WASHINGTON - A federal judge threw out an industry lawsuit Wednesday that could have led to more logging and road building in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest federal forest.
U.S. District Judge John Bates dismissed a lawsuit filed by a timber group and an organization of Southeast Alaska civic and business leaders. The Southeast Conference and Alaska Forest Association had challenged a 2008 management plan for the Tongass developed by the Bush administration.
Environmental groups hailed the ruling as a small victory, saying the judge had prevented what they consider a bad forest plan from becoming even worse. Those groups say the Bush plan does not do enough to protect old-growth reserves and sites that are sacred to Alaska Native tribes.
Under legal arguments made by the industry groups, any effort to protect forest land or prevent logging could have been barred, said Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental group that is involved in a separate lawsuit over the Tongass.
"This was an attempt by the timber industry to take a bad forest plan and make it even worse," Waldo said, adding that the judge's ruling kept that from happening.
Shelly Wright, executive director of the Southeast Conference, said she was disappointed.
"From the start the case has been about providing a reliable supply of timber to the communities which are so dependent on that supply for jobs," she said, adding that because the Forest Service has been unable to provide that supply, "real people and their families that lost their jobs are in a terrible recession."
At more than 26,000 square miles, the Tongass is about the same size as West Virginia and is often labeled the "crown jewel" in the national forest system.
The Bush plan leaves about 3.4 million acres of the 17-million acre forest open to logging and other development, including about 2.4 million acres of backcountry areas that are remote and roadless. About 663,000 acres are in areas considered most valuable for timber production.
Mark Gnadt, a spokesman for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said his group was pleased with what he called a common-sense decision.
"Had it gone the other way, it would've thrown out requirements for buffer strips to protect salmon streams and other guidelines most Southeast Alaskans agree are reasonable parameters for the timber industry," Gnadt said.
The Tongass plan, which stemmed from a series of lawsuits filed by Earthjustice and other environmental groups, adds 90,000 acres to old-growth reserves and protects 47,000 acres of land considered most vulnerable to development. It also pledges the Forest Service to work with Indian tribes to protect and maintain sacred sites across the forest.
The plan allows timber sales of up to 267 million board feet a year - enough for nearly 27,000 two-bedroom homes - but demand for timber is far short of that. Less than 25 million board feet was logged from the forest last year.
Forest Service officials have said they hope to increase logging in the Tongass to about 100 million board feet a year, but say even that will take major revamping of the timber industry in Alaska.