Environmentalists on Wednesday asked a federal court to reinstate a 1999 Forest Service decision, since overturned by a judge, that put 18 areas of the Tongass National Forest off limits to logging.
The original decision protected an additional 234,000 acres of the Tongass from logging and other development.
A three-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, meeting in Anchorage, did not rule Wednesday and took the issue under advisement.
The original decision by then-Agriculture Undersecretary Jim Lyons to protect more areas of the Tongass and species such as the Sitka black-tailed deer and the Alexander Archipelago wolf was overturned by U.S. District Judge James Singleton in 2001.
Singleton ruled that Lyons violated federal law by not conducting a public review before changing the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan.
Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo said environmentalists intervened in the case when the federal government decided not to appeal.
"People from Southeast Alaska asked the Forest Service to protect these areas while the plan was being developed and the prior administration responded with a plan," he said. "Unfortunately the Bush administration has not showed up to defend these special places."
The case affects areas such as Port Houghton near Juneau, Ushk Bay near Sitka, Cleveland Peninsula near Ketchikan, and Honker Divide on Prince of Wales Island, Waldo said. The areas also have been targeted by environmentalists for protection as designated wildernesses.
Tim Obst, assistant regional attorney with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of General Counsel, said the federal government didn't appeal the district court decision because it didn't intend to make changes in the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan.
In a declaration to the court in December, acting Alaska Regional Forester Steven Brink said he didn't intend to propose changes because of the extensive public, scientific, administrative and legal review that went into the 1997 decision.
"As the responsible official, my view of the current status of the Tongass Forest Plan is that the 1997 (record of decision) is in full effect," he said.
The timber industry's Alaska Forest Association appeared in court Wednesday to support the district court's decision. The 1999 changes should have gone through a full public process, AFA President George Woodbury said.
"It was not exposed to the proper (National Environmental Policy Act) process and the district court's decision was the right decision," he said. "Hopefully they'll do the right thing and leave it alone. We don't need any more withdrawals."
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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