(CN) – A federal judge pressed pause Monday on the largest logging operation undertaken on U.S. Forest Service-managed land in approximately 30 years.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason issued a preliminary injunction barring the Forest Service from moving forward with a 15-year plan to log about 40,000 acres in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, including about 23,000 acres of old-growth trees.
More immediately, the injunction temporarily staved off the sale of about 1,100 acres of old-growth forest on Prince of Wales Island – a 1.8 million-acre island located squarely within the Tongass as part of the Alexander Archipelago south of Juneau, Alaska.
“In a victory for the Tongass National Forest, today’s court ruling has spared nearly 1,200 acres of irreplaceable old-growth rainforest from chainsaws and roads – at least for now,” said Earthjustice attorney Olivia Glasscock. “We will continue working on behalf of our clients to defend these irreplaceable public lands, which safeguard our climate, provide habitat for wildlife and offer enjoyment for all.”
Glasscock argued on behalf of plaintiffs that the Forest Service did not conduct adequate environmental analysis of the project and its impacts on the local ecology. Specifically, the agency failed to provide a complete picture of the timber harvesting plan for the entire 1.8 million-acre island, including leaving out the specific locations where old-growth logging would occur, the plaintiffs said.
On Monday, Judge Gleason agreed environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Audubon Alaska would likely prevail on the merits of those claims, meaning it was imperative to halt the more immediate timber sale while the rest of the case is being litigated.
“The project EIS does not identify individual harvest units,” Gleason wrote in the 26-page ruling. “By only identifying broad areas within which harvest may occur, it does not fully explain to the public how or where actual timber activities will affect localized habitats.”
An EIS, or environmental impact statement, describes the environmental analysis typically performed by agencies seeking to approve or deny projects such as the one at issue.
Glasscock was quick to point out the ruling does not permanently protect any of the contested forest land, but noted it is an important step that prevented the Twin Mountain timber sale – the sale of nearly 1,200 acres that was slated for Sept. 29.
The Tongass is the largest national forest in the United States, consisting of 16.7 million acres of temperate rainforest home to a smorgasbord of flora and fauna unique to the area.
The Alexander Archipelago wolves, Sitka black-tailed deer and the northern goshawk all call the forest home. Recreation is popular in the Tongass, which incorporates 12 different communities.
Gleason is expected to issue a final ruling in the case no later than March 31, when the logging season begins.