by Jonathan Grass
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a United States Forest Service approval of four Tongass logging projects.
A three-judge panel of the court that hears appeals of federal cases originating in Alaska disagreed with U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline, who had upheld the Forest Service’s decision. The panel ordered the Forest Service to re-analyze the projects.
The logging projects in question are those in Scott Peak, Overlook, Traitors Cove and Soda Nick. According to a release by the plaintiffs, Greenpeace and Cascadia Wildlands, the four projects would cut 33 million board feet from 1,700 acres of old-growth forest and constructed 13.7 miles of logging roads in already fragmented areas.
The court cites concerns dealing with how the Forest Service used its deer model under the National Forest Management Act.
Greenpeace First Campaigner Larry Edwards said the lawsuit occurred because the Forest Service did not accurately explain any scientific basis for its decision on the projects.
“It boils down to there was no scientific explanation,” he said.
A primary concern was management of the Alexander Archipelago wolf. It also involved Sitka black-tailed deer, which Edwards said must be maintained, as this is a primary prey for these wolves as well as subsistence hunters.
“We’re thrilled with the ruling. It’s a clear win for us,” said Edwards. “It will make the Forest Service do the right thing in doing a credible analysis.”
“This was not a case of difference of opinion, but a conflict between science and politics. This was the Forest Service saying two plus two equals five, and hiding its bad math behind complex computer models. We knew if the judges looked behind the curtain they’d see it’s a mirage, and that’s what happened. The Forest Service wasn’t even able to meet the low legal bar of having a rational explanation for its decisions,” Cascadia Wildlands Alaska representative Gabe Scott said in the release.
“Getting the science straight is crucial, to provide enough deer habitat to assure that wolf populations will be sustained and that the needs of subsistence hunters are met,” he said.
The Forest Service was unable to comment on the decision due to the litigation involved. Spokesman Ray Massey referred questions to the Department of Justice. The Department also declined comment.
Any time approval of a logging project is overturned “is bad news for the timber industry,” said Owen Graham of the Alaska Forest Association. Graham said he had not yet had time to review this ruling.
The decision states that the Forest Service was inconsistent in using habitat sustainability index scores in its model to estimate the number of deer that can live on the affected lands.
Edwards said this is one of the two significant errors the Forest Service made. He said the best available science shows the maximum carrying capacity for the best quality deer is 100 deer per square mile. The decision states the Forest Service identified 100 deer in its table but inexplicably allows 130 deer per square mile as a potential carrying capacity.
Edwards said the second big problem was with a data set called VolStrata that’s used in the deer model. He said a 2000 Forest Service study shows that data set is not correlated to habitat quality, meaning tree volume is examined irrespective to tree size. The court didn’t decide on this matter but left it for the Forest Service to straighten out in its studies.
Edwards said the principles in this lawsuit apply to every significant timber sale between 1996 and 2008 before the Forest Service corrected errors in the deer model. However, he said it still fails to address cumulative impacts, especially on Prince of Wales Island.
Edwards dedicated the win to Glen Ith, who was a Forest Service project biologist who raised concerns over some of these projects. Ith was cited as a whistleblower who sued the Forest Service in 2006 over road-building issues and did an administrative appeal of the Scott Peak project. He died in March 2008 just days after his job was eliminated.