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Greens Lose Tongass|Timber Challenge

(CN) - A federal judge denied a motion for summary judgment from environmentalists who claim logging in Tongass National Forest threatens wolf and deer habitat.

Designated a National Forest by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, the Tongass encompasses roughly 17 million square miles, most of southeast Alaska, which is home to the city of Juneau, the state capital. The forest is part of the Pacific temperate rain forest, includes several islands, fjords and glaciers, and is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Several environmental groups, including the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Alaska Wilderness League, filed separate lawsuits against the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The complaints, consolidated in August 2014, challenge a management plan for allegedly inadequate protections for wolves and deer.

The Forest Service is required to take steps to protect the species under a 9th Circuit ruling in Natural Resources Defense Council, et al. v. U.S. Forest Service, et al.

In the consolidated complaint, the groups claimed the Forest Service's 2008 amendment to the Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan is insufficient to protect habitat from the impacts of logging operations, particularly in the 232,000-acre Big Thorne area of Prince of Wales Island.

After several administrative appeals, the Big Thorne logging project was approved by the Forest Service and "ground disturbing activities" are set to begin on April 1.

The environmental groups sought summary judgment under the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act, asking for an injunction stopping the logging.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline denied the plaintiffs' motion on March 20, finding that the Forest Service is not obligated by law to set aside minimum habitat.

"It is clear that the plaintiffs desire the 2008 forest plan to include an explicit value for the minimum deer habitat capability necessary to support viability of wolf populations, as well as a numerical value for road density," Beistline wrote in his 25-page order. "However, plaintiffs have not pointed to any specific statutory requirement for such an explicit minimum threshold, nor does this court find there to be any. This is because 'NFMA does not specify precisely how' the Forest Service must demonstrate that it has met the objectives of the pertinent forest plan. This is congruent with the sort of flexibility necessary to balance the objectives of NFMA."

Beistline, senior federal judge in Alaska, said that the court does not intend "flexibility to be construed as unenforceability."

"Agency actions under the 2008 Forest Plan are still subject to evaluation for their impact on wolf population viability and compliance with the USFW's wolf conservation strategy, which do set limits on just how flexible the agency can be," Beistline said. "However, in the present case, the challenge was for the failure to meet a flexible guideline rather than a statutory requirement. Accordingly, the court finds the 2008 forest plan does not violate NFMA."

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