Conservation groups filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday, claiming the agency grossly overprojected market demand for Southeast Alaska timber in its 1997 management plan for the Tongass National Forest.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court, claims the agency miscalculated market demand and that actual demand is only half the projection set out in the Tongass Land Management Plan.
"The Forest Service made a huge error in plan. The Forest Service economist had prepared a projection of market demand over the next decade that was pretty good, but the regional forester, when he signed the record of decision ... misinterpreted the report," said Tom Waldo, an attorney with Earthjustice, the environmental law firm that filed the suit.
Waldo said the forester thought the report only included demand for certain types of timber, when in fact it included the demand for all timber logged on the Tongass.
"It led to a plan that makes available far more land for logging than is necessary. It is putting at risk key roadless areas highly valued by people in Southeast Alaska," he said.
Guidelines set by TLMP and the Tongass Timber Reform Act allow the harvest of up to 145 million board feet per year, said Dennis Neill, spokesman for the Tongass National Forest.
Neill declined to comment on the litigation, saying the agency's attorneys still have to review the suit. But he said the six timber sales being challenged have allowed the harvest of 41 million board feet of wood and provided about 215 jobs, and will offer another 141 million board feet for harvest, resulting in 745 more jobs. Those sales have been and will be carried out over several years.
"It's important for people to know the stakes," he said.
A representative of the timber industry said the Forest Service still isn't offering enough timber sales to sustain the industry, which once boomed in Southeast and has shrunk considerably in the past decade.
"We don't have enough timber and to the extent that these people are filing lawsuits, if they're successful, all they're going to do is put people out of work," said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association.
Graham said this year Southeast loggers have harvested 51 million board feet.
The lawsuit also challenges the environmental impact statements for six Southeast timber sales. Those sales are: the Finger Mountain sale in Tenakee Inlet, the Cholmondeley and Chasina sales on east Prince of Wales Island, the Sea Level sale on Revilla Island, the Canal Hoya sale on the north side of the Cleveland Peninsula, and the Crane and Rowan Mountain sale on Kuiu Island. Waldo said the statements are being prepared using a misleading picture of market demand.
"They're continuing to rely on the projections that were made in 1997 even though they now know that those projections were wildly optimistic," he said.
Aurah Landau, spokeswoman for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, which is represented in the suit, said the allegedly inflated demand sucks dollars from other industries.
"(The money) could be going to other projects, tourism planning or that sort of thing. (Timber sales) are not justified economically according to Forest Service economists, and the market isn't calling for them, so they shouldn't happen," she said.
Waldo said the plaintiffs want the Forest Service to revise the market demand portion of TLMP and to prepare supplemental environmental impact statements for the timber sales in question to "present a more honest disclosure of the market demand, of the impacts of the sales to the environment, and of the cost to taxpayers."
Masha Herbst can be reached at email@example.com.