The Federal District Court in Alaska just issued an Order granting our motion against the Tongass National Forest, stopping four old-growth timber sales in Southeast Alaska for a second time because of concerns related to logging effects on wolves, deer, and subsistence hunters.
So raise a glass! The Scott Peak, Traitors Cove, Overlook and Soda Nick timber sale, near the communities of Petersburg, Ketchikan and Hydaburg on Alaska's rainforest archipelago, are back off the chopping block.
This case has been a mini-saga showing the fun & maddening ways environmental litigation works. We first sued back in 2008. It took a couple years of legal ping-pong until, in 2011, we finally got our win in the 9th Circuit. The court found the Forest Service had not explained how the project, which we had argued reduced deer habitat capability far below the established thresholds (18 deer/ sq mi), was in compliance with their own Forest Plan. The Forest Service had been mis-using a computer model in a way that masked those effects.
So, the court kicked it back to the Forest Service to correct its model and explain itself (in legalese: a "remand"). If the Forest Service could adequately explain how the sales were kosher with the Forest Plan, then logging could proceed.
Trouble is, the sales aren't really consistent with the Forest Plan. Combined with past logging, not enough old-growth would be left for deer to achieve the promises they've made about wolves and subsistence. The best science says the computer model needs to show 18 deer/ sq mile to have enough actual deer to feed wolves and human subsistence hunters. Remove too much habitat, and the whole system unravels. Places like these are at that breaking point.
So again, the Forest Service tried to obscure the problem on the ground with clever paperwork, applying the wrong rule to their new decisions.
That all took another couple years. When we saw the Forest Service hadn't really corrected its errors, we filed a motion to enforce the mandate on remand, which is what the court granted yesterday.
The Forest Service now has a choice whether to invest more taxpayer money pushing these sales forward, or to let it drop. Theoretically they could re-do their anlysis, do it right, and log the sales.
That's the frustrating thing about environmental law, the only things you can win on are procedural. The government gets infinite chances to try and make things square with the law.
But fundamentally I hope Forest Service leadership recognizes that the underlying problem here is not legal procedure. There is a fundmantal contradiction between the political desire to use the forest to feed a timber industry, and the reality that the forest ecosystem is at a breaking point. Deer hunting in some of these areas is already highly restricted, and wolves (who feed on deer) are on a path to an ESA listing or extinction. The only way you can rationally decide it's OK to continue logging the Tongass is to make a mistake.
So the struggle continues on many fronts, but for now, we're celebrating a nice victory. Alaska's subsistence hunters, deer and wolves are a little safer today than they were yesterday. That's movement in the right direction.