Loggers want to sell felled trees in disputed timber case

Sale suspended pending new study; but preparing new report could take 2 years

Posted: Sunday, July 17, 2005

The U.S. Department of Justice, the state of Alaska and a timber group plan to ask a federal judge to allow loggers sell the wood they've already cut from a disputed Yakutat timber sale.

Alaska District Judge James Singleton ruled last week in a case brought by the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe that loggers must suspend the salvage timber sale until the Forest Service prepares a more extensive environmental analysis.

Preparing a new study could take up to two years, though, and loggers hope Singleton will allow them to sell the trees they've already cut from the Tongass National Forest. The trees, felled by a windstorm, are deteriorating after lying on the ground for four years.

"The injunction that the court issued was very broad," said Assistant Attorney General Zach Falcon. "It stopped all work in the sale area."

About 3 million board feet of the 8 million-board-foot Coyak Salvage Timber Sale are sitting in a lumber sort yard. Some logs have been harvested but remain in the forest. A log ship is on its way to Yakutat to pick up the logs.

Falcon said Friday that the state hopes the judge will allow Alcan Logging and Alaska Pacific Logging to sell what they've already cut and obliterate their logging roads. Attorneys were working on a potential court motion on Friday.

While the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe is relieved by the court's decision to stop the sale, some 30 loggers stationed in town are poised to lose summer work.

"The (Coyak) timber ... will be wasted and left to rot if not utilized," Gov. Frank Murkowski said in a statement Friday. "With a crew available in Yakutat to harvest this timber, it is a shame that the Federal District court for the District of Alaska refused to let the work go forward."

The state, Department of Justice and the Alaska Forest Association plan to ask the judge to change his ruling to allow removal and sale of the already-harvested wood and to allow loggers to decommission the temporary "trench" roads they built for the project, Falcon said.

The trench roads - which can divert natural stream flows - were the most controversial element of the project, criticized because of their potential harm to the Situk River. The river boasts all five species of salmon and a world-class steelhead trout run.

The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe filed a request for injunction and summary judgment to stop the timber sale earlier this year. The judge granted the tribe's request last Tuesday.

If Singleton rejects the request to modify his ruling, the state of Alaska may appeal his decision or attempt a court-approved settlement with the tribe, among other options, Falcon said.

"It's too early to know if an appeal will be fruitful," Falcon said.

Yakutat Tlingit Tribe President Bert Adams, Sr., who runs a charter boat business, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

"We want to be reasonable," said Juneau-based Earthjustice attorney Demian Schane, who is representing the Yakutat Tlingits in the case.

Some of the items in the new motion to the court - such as removing the trench roads - are clearly in his client's interest, Schane said.

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

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