A federal judge has tailored an injunction that will allow some logging on the Tongass National Forest this summer.
U.S. District Judge James Singleton of Anchorage issued an order Friday that stops timber harvest in most Tongass wilderness, but allows work on some existing timber sales and the Swan Lake-Lake Tyee electric intertie near Ketchikan to go forward.
The injunction will remain in effect until 45 days after the U.S. Forest Service publishes a court-ordered study that considers parts of the Tongass for wilderness designation, according to the order. The agency has said the supplemental environmental impact statement should be finished later this year.
Singleton ruled a year ago that the Forest Service violated federal law when it failed to consider some areas for wilderness designation in issuing the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan. At the time, he issued an injunction that halted logging on the Tongass. He lifted it two months later, pending a hearing on the issue.
Friday's order allows timber harvest and road building in areas where a site-specific environmental impact statement was published before 1999. As a result, five timber sales in central and southern Southeast Alaska that were the focus of a three-day hearing in Juneau in February can proceed, said Forest Service spokesman Dennis Neill.
"It's something we're pleased with," he said. "We will continue this summer as we had anticipated moving. This was our hoped-for outcome, other than not having an injunction at all, which was our first choice."
At the February hearing, conservation groups argued that an injunction would protect high-value wilderness from irreparable harm.
Tom Waldo, attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said the environmental groups in the case are pleased with Friday's order, although it didn't go as far as they had hoped.
"It's a victory for roadless areas of the Tongass in that it prevents any further logging or road building in areas approved in the last three years," he said. "It gives some breathing room ... so there's some possibility of protecting these areas in the wilderness review that's taking place right now."
Friday's order doesn't appear to stop the Forest Service from planning timber sales in areas under review for wilderness designation, but would stop a decision in such cases, Waldo said. Pat Veesart, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society, said his group is focusing its attention on the wilderness review.
"We're planning on being fully engaged in that process," he said. "Can the Forest Service make a fair decision on these areas while they are simultaneously planning timber sales in them? ... We'll see. We'll see if the process works."
Singleton's ruling comes at a critical time for Southeast Alaska's timber industry, said Alaska Forest Association President George Woodbury, who runs a forest products consulting business in Wrangell. Timber companies are preparing to enter the woods to replenish their wood supply, he said.
"I think we're in good shape for the shape we're in," he said. "Winter inventory is getting low and interruptions would be difficult. We're very happy to have that decision."
During the February hearing, timber industry representatives said they needed access to five sales to keep Silver Bay Logging in Wrangell and Viking Lumber near Craig operating. The sales represent about 62 million board feet of timber. They are the Upper Carroll sale near Ketchikan, the South Lindy near Petersburg, Four Leaf on Kupreanof Island, King George on Etolin Island near Wrangell, and South Arm on Prince of Wales Island.
The judge's order can be appealed, but conservation groups need more time to review it before deciding what to do next, Waldo said.
Meanwhile, right-of-way clearing for the 57-mile Swan Lake-Lake Tyee electric intertie is scheduled to start this summer. The overland power line will connect Ketchikan with Petersburg and Wrangell.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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