A federal judge ruled late last week that the Tongass National Forest should not be exempted from the Forest Service rule that prevents most road construction and timber harvesting in remote wooded areas.
It was a win for environmentalists, who opposed the 2003 decision by the George W. Bush administration to exclude the Tongass, the largest national forest, from the Clinton-era "roadless rule" designed to conserve pristine forests.
The environmental plaintiffs, including Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, claimed the government had violated the National Environmental Policy Act and that the decision was "arbitrary and capricious" under the Administrative Procedure Act.
U.S. District Judge John Sedwick of the District of Alaska ruled Friday that the government had violated the Administrative Procedures Act, meaning he did not have to reach the NEPA issue.
The reasons given by the Forest Service for exempting Tongass from the roadless rule were "implausible, contrary to evidence in the record" and at odds with previous rulings by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Sedwick wrote.
The government had argued, among other things, that the roadless rule could lead to the loss of 800 jobs and place limits on the ability of communities in southeast Alaska on getting access to roads and utilities.
Sedwick rejected those claims, saying the government did not provide evidence on how or why jobs would be lost or "any other potential negative economic impacts."
The judge did not, however, rule on whether three timber sales authorized by the exemption should be allowed to go ahead. He said that was a decision for the secretary of the Agriculture Department.
Karla Dutton, the Alaska director for Defenders of Wildlife, described the ruling as a "wise decision" that shows there is "much more to be gained from protecting the Tongass than plundering it."
Among those dismayed at the decision was Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
The decision "will make it all the more difficult for the few remaining timber operations that depend on the Tongass and the Forest Service to survive," Murkowski said. "I intend to do every thing I can to limit this damage."
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