A federal judge this morning issued an order that will allow logging to resume in the Tongass National Forest, pending further review of a case that affects Southeast Alaska wilderness areas.
U.S. District Judge James Singleton of Anchorage today suspended an order that enjoined actions altering the wilderness character of Tongass roadless areas. His March 30 decision said the U.S. Forest Service breached the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act by failing to evaluate some roadless areas as eligible for wilderness protections. In response, the Forest Service shut down Tongass logging in April.
Singleton's order today said he will schedule an evidentiary hearing in Juneau as soon as possible to determine the appropriate scope of the injunction.
Forest Service spokesman Mike Weber said the agency will allow operators who have timber sales under contract to restart operations. Weber said today's action was temporary.
"Right now we don't have any loggers working on the (Tongass). The decision to suspend the injunction comes at a crucial time for the industry. Supply at mills is dwindling," he said.
The Forest Service had 67 timber sales under contract when the injunction was implemented, Weber said. The order affects 342 million board feet of timber under contract in the Tongass.
Environmental law firm Earthjustice has represented the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Sitka Conservation Society and the Alaska Center for the Environment in the case. Attorney Tom Waldo described today's decision as a setback, especially when combined with other recent decisions affecting roadless areas nationwide.
Brian McNitt, manager of the Alaska Rainforest Campaign, said such wilderness areas as Ushk Bay near Sitka, Tenakee Inlet and the Cleveland Peninsula near Ketchikan are at risk.
"I'm optimistic because so many people in Southeast have supported protection and they are areas they really care about," he said.
Singleton's order allows the Alaska Forest Association and Southeast Alaska communities to intervene in the wilderness case. It also allows environmental groups to intervene in a decision that lifted wilderness protections set forth in a 1999 record of decision on the Tongass Land Management Plan.
George Woodbury, acting Executive Director of the Alaska Forest Association, said Silver Bay's sawmill in Wrangell has been down for the past three weeks because of the injunction and other sawmills have cut back operations.
"There's lots of rejoicing. We can go back to work," he said.