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Conservation groups that secured court protections for Tongass National Forest wilderness last month say they don't think a total logging shutdown is necessary.
U.S. District Court Judge James Singleton Jr. on March 30 enjoined actions that would alter the wilderness character of eligible roadless areas until the U.S. Forest Service complies with the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act. The Forest Service halted logging and road-building on the Tongass five days later.
Tom Waldo, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said the groups that appealed the decision don't completely agree with the shutdown. The Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Alaska Center for the Environment and the Sitka Conservation Society have asked the judge to clarify the ruling.
"Our intent was to get an order that protects the roadless areas of the Tongass," Waldo said Friday. "We only intended on stopping sales in areas that are still roadless. It's ridiculous to apply the injunction to places that aren't roadless."
The Forest Service has 44 timber sales and 70 million board feet of wood under contract that are not in roadless areas, Waldo said. Specifically, the Forest Service should not be shutting down operations at the Shamrock, Todahl Backline and Bohemia sales on Kupreanof Island and the Cable Drop sale on Prince of Wales Island, he said.
"There's enough timber (in nonroadless areas) to see logging levels consistent with the average cut in recent years on competitively bid timber sales," he said.
At the same time, Waldo said the groups think the injunction is still important. He said it benefits tourism, hunting, fishing, subsistence and recreation on the Tongass.
The judge's order was straightforward and the logging ban was a precautionary response, said Forest Service attorney Jim Ustasiewski.
"We think it's pretty clear what we can and can not do," he said.
The Forest Service has asked the judge for relief from the injunction and is evaluating whether to appeal the decision, he said.
According to court documents, the agency is allowing the immediate removal of timber previously felled on affected sales. In addition to logging operations, the injunction could affect land exchanges involving roadless areas, special use-permits authorizing motorized trails and the Swan Lake-Lake Tyee electric intertie project between Ketchikan and Wrangell.
The Alaska Forest Association, joined by a number of Southeast Alaska communities, has asked to intervene in the case. A supplemental environmental impact statement on wilderness areas would likely take a year to complete, and up to three years if the decision is appealed, association executive director Jack Phelps said.
Logging in Southeast Alaska is now limited to private lands and state sales. A variety of businesses have been hurt by the injunction, he said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.