(CN) — A federal judge handed a logging project proposed for the Alaskan wilderness a major setback Wednesday, finding the environmental impact studies for the project were inadequate and cannot be saved.
The initial proposal for the national forest on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island would have rolled back federal protections and designated roughly 185,000 acres suitable for timber production. The project would have also included a network of new roads zigzagging across the island.
This year, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason found the U.S. Forest Service made serious errors in its project studies, like assuming any future decision-making would not require additional review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The federal government’s environmental impact statement did not consider where timber would be harvested and where roadways would be built.
And in a 14-page ruling on Wednesday, Gleason found the U.S. Forest Service’s errors weigh heavily toward a full cancellation of the project.
“The Forest Service now suggests that the project EIS’s shortcomings do not necessarily prevent it from serving as a programmatic EIS, to which future site specific analyses could tier, potentially without further amendment,” Gleason wrote. “The Forest Service reads the court’s decision and order too narrowly.”
The fact the federal government could not compare the impact from any alternative options for the project amounted to a significant error.
Gleason also rejected the Forest Service’s argument that vacating its environmental impact study would set the project back to square one.
“The agency’s chief complaint is that vacatur would leave it unable to tier to the project EIS in future NEPA analyses, an outcome it characterizes as “precisely the kind of micromanagement of agency decision-making that courts should avoid,’” Gleason wrote. “But the court concludes a partial vacatur of the environmental impact study is the natural consequence of the errors contained within it.”
Nor is the potential economic impact to the timber industry and the local economy a reason to let the Forest Service continue with the project as is, the judge found.
“The court finds that the economic harm caused by partial vacatur of the project EIS does not outweigh the seriousness of the errors in that document, such that remand without vacatur is appropriate,” she wrote. “The court acknowledges that the timber industry will suffer economic harm as a result of partial vacatur of the project EIS. But that harm is not so disruptive and irremediable so as to cause the court to depart from” the Administrative Procedure Act.
Located in southeast Alaska on Prince of Wales Island, the pristine Tongass National Forest runs the gamut of scenic characteristics including the Alexander Archipelago’s coastal mountains, glaciers and a long history of timber operations.
Plaintiffs include the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Alaska Rainforest Defenders, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society and Natural Resources Defense Council.
In a statement, Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo applauded the court’s decision as a win for the old-growth forests future generations on Prince of Wales Island.
“Today all who seek refuge in this temperate rainforest, and those who rely on traditional hunting practices sustained by that ecosystem, can breathe a sigh of relief,” Waldo said.
Co-plaintiff Southeast Alaska Conservation Council agreed.
“We’re thrilled with Judge Gleason’s decision to vacate,” said Meredith Trainor, executive director of the group. “The decision today means the Forest Service will not be able to effectively treat future timber sales on Prince of Wales Island as ‘pre-approved,’ but will require them to complete a National Environmental Policy Act analysis for any new proposed sale, as they should, including by engaging the public and soliciting their feedback regarding the specific places they propose to allow logging. This is a big win for SEACC, our partners, and the old-growth trees on Prince of Wales Island.”
An email to the Forest Service seeking comment was not immediately answered.