Judge halts timber sale near Yakutat

Tlingit tribe requested suspension

Posted: Friday, July 15, 2005

A federal judge has slammed to a halt a controversial salvage timber sale near Yakutat.

U.S. District Judge James Singleton told the U.S. Forest Service this week that it cannot proceed with the 8 million-board-foot timber sale unless it prepares a more extensive environmental analysis.

"We are very pleased with the court's decision," said Bert Adams Sr., president of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, which had asked the judge to suspend the sale.

The tribal council was worried that temporary, below-grade "trench" roads used by loggers would damage the Situk River watershed, the lifeblood of Yakutat's subsistence and cultural heritage, he said.

The judge's decision, issued Tuesday, leaves 30 or more loggers without a summer job, said Bob Hild, president of Alaska Pacific Logging, a subcontractor on the timber sale. "These are people with families to support," he said.

"We really don't want to lose these people," said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association. "Our industry has gotten so small." Graham was scrambling Thursday to find work elsewhere for the loggers.

Alcan Logging plans to leave Yakutat, said company partner Eric Nichols.

Yakutat District Ranger Patricia O'Connor said Thursday she is "disappointed" with the judge's decision. She informed loggers Wednesday that they needed to stop all work on the sale. The loggers are allowed to finish a related salvage timber sale nearby, she said.

The Forest Service is discussing its legal options with the Department of Justice. They could include an appeal to a higher court or a request for the judge to reconsider his decision, said Forest Service attorney Jim Ustasiewski.

Alcan Logging "has to demobilize," Nichols said. "The wood is getting too old. We can't hang around," he said, citing equipment and labor costs.

The logging project is about 40 percent done. About 2.9 million board feet are sitting in a sort yard, with a ship on the way to pick them up. Court motions are being filed to ask the judge to allow shipment of these logs, Nichols said.

Singleton, an Anchorage judge, said in his Tuesday court order that the Forest Service failed to take a hard look at the questions raised by the Yakutat Tlingits about the effects of trench roads in the Situk River watershed.

"The Forest Service has not provided a convincing statement of reasons explaining why the trench roads will have minimal impact," Singleton wrote. He also found fault with the project on other legal grounds.

The Yakutat Ranger District had issued a "Finding of No Significant Impact" in order to avoid compiling an extensive environmental analysis, called an environmental impact statement.

The district instead prepared a less detailed report, called an environmental analysis.

Though the Yakutat Assembly declined to get involved in the tribe's lawsuit, it had voted last September to ask the Forest Service for an EIS.

"It's a mixed bag," said Steve Henry, Yakutat city manager. "There's a group of people in town who feel that Yakutat is a fishing town, and so much of the watershed has already been harvested, so why cause any more degradation?" he said.

"Others say we need the economic boost," Henry added.

"The court correctly concluded that the Forest Service cannot sweep important issues under the rug," said Demian Shane, a Juneau attorney with Earthjustice, the law firm that represented the Yakutat Tlingits.

Yakutat Tlingit council member Ray Sensmeier has been fighting the timber sale and other projects in the Situk watershed for years.

He said Yakutat's Tlingit "elders are really, really pleased" with the judge's decision this week. "We didn't expect this," he added.

Sensmeier had collected about 370 signatures of residents who opposed the timber sale.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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