ANCHORAGE - More than two million acres of roadless tracts in the Tongass National Forest have been temporarily closed to timber sales under a pending settlement between environmental groups and the U.S. Forest Service.
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Both parties said Wednesday that they are pleased with the agreement, which has yet to be approved in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.
The agreement will expire as soon as the Forest Service issues its new timber sale plan in the next year or so, but environmental groups say it gives them more leverage in their fight to keep the federal agency from selling road-free forest to logging companies, and more time to rally public opposition.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service can still sell 108 million board feet of timber, almost all of which is located in areas accessible by road, said Dennis Neill, a spokesman in the agency's Ketchikan office. The sales will keep about 650 employees in timber and related industries in their jobs until at least the end of the year, Neill said.
The agreement could make it much more difficult for the Forest Service to restore the roadless areas to future timber sale plans, Neill said.
"This delays those sales indefinitely from a few months to forever," Neill said.
Environmental groups are still wary.
"It does not put the issue to bed for good," said Tom Waldo, a Juneau-based attorney for the environmental litigation group Earthjustice. "I would like to be optismistic that the agency would adopt a plan that recognizes the changed realities in the Tongass, that the forest is worth a lot more for hunting, fishing, wildlife and tourism than for clear-cuts."
Waldo was referring to the precipitous decrease in demand for wood from the Tongass since the early 1990s as large timber corporations turned to the less expensive practice of harvesting trees in developing countries.
The Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry trade group based in Ketchikan, would not comment on the agreement because its board of directors hadn't seen it yet. Calls on Wednesday to executive director Owen Graham and president Kirk Dahlstrom were not immediately returned.
The agreement stems from one of four lawsuits filed by environmental groups in 2003 that have since shifted the Forest Service's timber sale program away from roadless areas to land that can be reached via roads that meander for 3,700 miles through the 17-million acre Tongass.
In the run-up to the settlement, environmentalists argued that based on market demand, the Forest Service had miscalculated how much land in the nation's largest national forest should be made available to logging.
In 2005, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. The court struck down the Forest Service's land management plan on grounds that the agency had mistakenly doubled the volume of timber needed to supply local sawmills and failed to consider better protections for roadless areas.
The U.S. District Court in Alaska was then responsible for determining whether logging should be allowed while the agency was writing up a new plan, culminating in the agreement.
Plaintiffs include the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the village of Kake and several national environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Public comments for the Forest Service's new timber sale plan are due April 30. The Forest Service hopes to finalize the amended forest plan by the end of August, Neill said. A 45-day appeal period will follow.
The Tongass is the world's largest temperate rainforest and covers about 80 percent of southeast Alaska. It provides a livelihood for thousands of residents in the timber, tourism and guiding industries and is used by many for subsistence and recreational activities.