A Win for the Tongass National Forest and a Win for the Rule of Law

What a recent court decision means for Alaska and beyond.

A federal judge in Alaska has ruled that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other laws when it approved the Prince of Wales Landscape Level Analysis, a project that included the biggest timber sale seen in decades on the Tongass. The court has not yet decided on a remedy (the action that the Forest Service must do to correct the violation of law) and has asked for more discussion from attorneys on both sides. Overall, this decision is a win for the Tongass National Forest and a win for the rule of law.

The Prince of Wales plan would have allowed the agency to sell about 48,000 acres of old-growth forest and 77,000 acres of second-growth forest on Prince of Wales Island, the most biologically rich parts of the Tongass. But, most importantly for our case, the Forest Service used a “condition-based NEPA process” and did not explain where the harvest would actually take place. We viewed this action as a fundamental violation to the principles of NEPA that require making an informed decision and gathering input from the public. The court agreed with the arguments from our attorneys that the lack of site-specific information created a breakdown of NEPA and was a violation of law.

Prince of Wales Island is a hotspot of endemic plants and animals. The island once boasted large swaths of giant ancient trees, but has also borne the brunt of decades of old-growth clearcut logging. The timber industry has dwindled in Southeast Alaska due to its own unsustainable appetite. Now, it is critical to save the last remaining pockets of old-growth on Prince of Wales, in order to support the spruce grouse, flying squirrels, deer, wolves, and bears that need big old trees. The nearby human communities also depend on a healthy forest for cultural well-being and subsistence hunting. Furthermore, the big old trees sequester carbon and provide a climate refuge for humans, birds, salmon, and wildlife by keeping streams and temperatures cooler and supporting a diversity of plants. 

This decision is favorable for the Prince of Wales ecosystem and the Southeast Alaska region. It has also called into question the legality of the Central Tongass Project, another timber sale on the Tongass that used the condition-based NEPA process. The decision also implicates other timber sales and industrial projects around the nation that followed the same method. It is important to recognize, however, that NEPA itself is under significant threat from a proposed administrative rollback. As we recognize and celebrate this win, we also look ahead to the future, where we will continue to advocate for sustainable forests, sound climate change policies, and the habitat protections that birds, wildlife, and humans benefit from.

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