Alaska, Miners & Loggers Lose Fight Over Tongass Forest

WASHINGTON (CN) — Big industries and the state of Alaska have no grounds to challenge a federal policy regulating road-building and tree-cutting in 58 million acres of national forests, a federal judge ruled, dismissing the 16-year-old case with prejudice.

Alaska was joined by mining, logging, construction, road-building and utilities industries in challenging the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, created in 2001 during the Clinton administration after swaths of forests had been logged to clear spaces for roads.

The Department of Agriculture adopted the rule to preserve 58.5 million acres of natural habitats in America’s national forests.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon dismissed with prejudice last Wednesday, Sept. 20, finding the plaintiffs failed to prove that the Department of Agriculture had violated any laws.

Alaska and the industries wanted to exempt from the rule Tongass National Forest, at 16.8 million acres the nation’s largest of the 192 million acres in the National Forest system.

They claimed, among other things, that the USDA did not gather informed comments and thus couldn’t make an informed decision, although in summing up the rule-making procedure in his ruling, Leon said the U.S. Forest Service, a branch of the Department of Agriculture, received 517,000 public comments and held 187 meetings around the country that were attended by 16,000 people.

Numerous environmental groups intervened in support of the rule, including the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Alaska Center for the Environment, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Tongass Conservation Society, the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace.

Leon wrote in the 45-page ruling: “Alaska seems to want this court to presume that, because the USDA conducted such a far-reaching rulemaking in an extraordinary short time period, the USDA necessarily did not satisfy NEPA’s goals of adequate public disclosure and informed decision making.”

The judge rejected that argument, finding that the USDA “adequately considered” each concern in applying the rule to the Tongass Forest.

EarthJustice and others hailed the ruling.

“The timber industry, and a handful of states where the industry was politically influential, didn’t like these protections, and fought them in court,” EarthJustice said in a statement. “Alaska has been especially tenacious, pursuing a challenge in the District of Columbia after two other federal appellate courts rejected similar lawsuits.”

The Alaska Governor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Rolf Skar of Greenpeace said: “At a time when the Trump administration is moving to drill, saw apart, and sell out our public lands, the millions of Americans who spoke up in support of wild forests have something to celebrate.”

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