Six conservation groups said Thursday they are dropping their legal challenge to two timber sales that could provide more than a year's supply of timber to Southeast Alaska mills.
It's part of an out-of-court settlement that the groups, including the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the Sierra Club, are finalizing with the U.S. Forest Service and other parties this week.
In return, the Forest Service has agreed to withdraw an 8 million-board-foot Orion North timber sale in the Sea Level Creek valley, the last-remaining roadless watershed in Thorne Arm near Ketchikan.
"This agreement is a small-scale model of what the timber sale program in the Tongass ought to look like," said Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earth Justice.
Waldo said the areas that will be reopened to logging - known as the Buckdance and Madder sale areas - contain up to 37 million board feet of timber. They are in valleys that have been logged and already have road access and lack the sensitive wildlife aspects of the Orion North sale area, he said.
Tongass National Forest spokesman Dennis Neill declined to comment on the settlement Thursday because the Alaska Forest Association, a timber group that sided with the Forest Service in the case, had not yet signed the final paperwork.
George Woodbury, president of the Alaska Forest Association, said the settlement is good news in that it provides some more timber to regional mills.
But, rather than a model of a better timber program, he said the settlement is an example of how the timber industry "is living hand-to-mouth to survive."
Woodbury said, "When you haven't got anything, any little bit helps," he said.
He said the environmental groups are holding the strings to timber sales in the 17-million-acre Tongass. "When they've got you tied up (in court), they control everything."
Aurah Landau, a spokeswoman for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said the settlement is significant for several reasons.
"It's very practical," she said, noting that it clears 80 percent of the total annual average logging level on the Tongass in recent years.
"It shows you can provide timber and still protect areas that are important to communities," she said.
Some Southeast Alaska residents had provided testimonials to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle about the wildlife and recreational values of the Sea Level Creek valley.
Marcel LaPerriere, of Sitka, told the court he has visited the area for at least 20 years, going scuba diving and hiking. "I don't want to see Thorne Arm destroyed the same way I've watched the nearby land along Carroll Inlet destroyed."
The settlement is the second of its kind in the Tongass between the Forest Service and environmentalists in the last nine months. It doesn't resolve the case that SEACC and the other groups filed against the Forest Service's Tongass Land Management Plan.
Approximately eight Tongass timber sales, from Cholmondeley Sound on Prince of Wales Island to Finger Mountain at Tenakee Inlet, are still contested in that case.
The Court of Appeals is expected to rule in the case any week now.