A federal appeals court sided with the state of Alaska on Wednesday in a ruling that could open a large portion of the Tongass National Forest to road building and logging.
In a split decision, a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling by a district court, which found that the U.S. Forest Service had improperly exempted the Tongass from a 2001 rule banning new roads and timber harvesting on relatively pristine national forestland across the country.
But it’s unclear what the practical effects of the new ruling will be. The panel sent the case back to the lower court to decide whether the Forest Service needs to prepare environmental documents for the exemption.
And even if the district court rules that no further review is necessary, in effect giving the green light to logging, the Forest Service won’t necessarily proceed with timber sales.
“It doesn’t mean they have to sell the timber. It means they can sell the timber,” said Tom Lenhart, the Alaska assistant attorney general who argued the appeal.
Forest Service policies on Tongass timber cutting have changed since 2003, when the agency exempted the forest from the 2001 rule, which was adopted in the final days of President Clinton’s administration.
“The Forest Service is not now attempting any more timber sales in the Tongass roadless areas, and we don’t think because of this decision they will start,” said Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo, who represented environmental groups in the case.
The Clinton rule set off more than a decade of litigation, contradictory court rulings and repeal attempts. The timber and energy industries and some Western states condemned the road ban for barring the use of natural resources on tens of millions of acres of federal forestland.
Although the rule was upheld in 2011 by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Tongass exemption remained in litigation.
The forest in southeast Alaska is roughly the size of the state of West Virginia and has the largest roadless area of any national forest, about 9.6 million acres. The land is a mix of ice fields and cedar, spruce and hemlock forest.
In excluding the Tongass, the Forest Service said the road ban kept dozens of Alaska communities in isolation, ignored timber demand and hurt the local economy.
A U.S. District Court set aside the exemption, prompting the appeal by Alaska. In a 2-1 ruling, the 9th Circuit panel found that the Forest Service had legitimate reasons to exclude the Tongass from the Clinton rule and had not acted arbitrarily.
Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, appointed by Clinton, and Judge Carlos T. Bea, a President George W. Bush appointee, made up the majority.
Judge M. Margaret McKeown, a Clinton appointee, dissented, calling the Tongass exclusion a “monumental decision [that] deserves greater scrutiny.”