Environmentalists have sued the U.S. Forest Service over a plan they say threatens to open up valuable sections of the largest national forest to clear-cut logging.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Juneau, said the Forest Service’s six-year-old management plan for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest was based on flawed information that exaggerated the demand for timber from there. The lawsuit also challenges six Tongass timber sales now pending as a result of the 1997 plan.
The lawsuit seeks to have the Tongass management plan and the six sale plans rewritten, said Tom Waldo, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the six plaintiff groups.
The Tongass, which sprawls over nearly 17 million acres of islands, coastlines, rain-drenched mountains and glaciers of Alaska’s southeastern panhandle, has long been the subject of bitter debate.
Environmentalists characterize it as North America’s last largely intact old-growth temperate rain forest, while timber-industry supporters see it as a storehouse of valuable wood commodities.
An industry spokesman disputed the lawsuit claims about market demand, saying the region’s timber mills face supply shortages.
“If the mills want timber to run their mills, to me that’s demand,” said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, based in Ketchikan.
Waldo said there is plenty of timber in road-accessible areas of the Tongass available to feed the meager market demand without exploiting wild areas away from roads, as the sales would do.
“The Forest Service is offering vastly more timber than there is currently a market for in southeast Alaska,” he said. ”As a result, they’re unwisely putting at risk key roadless areas highly valued by people of southeast Alaska.”
The lawsuit is the latest volley in a dispute over the 1997 management plan. Environmental objections to that plan prompted the Clinton administration to rewrite it in 1999, ordering greater habitat protections among other changes. But a timber-industry lawsuit challenged that rewrite, and the Bush administration resurrected the earlier management plan.