Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week approved a timber sale in a roadless area of Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the first logging allowed in an area covered by the 2001 roadless rule since the secretary took personal responsibility for such decisions.
The move disappointed environmentalists who have been urging the Obama administration to reinstate the rule, which granted blanket protection to about 58 million acres of national forests nationwide but has been mired in legal battles ever since President Clinton put it in place just before leaving office.
In May, Vilsack signed a directive giving himself sole power to make decisions for one year on building roads and harvesting timber on nearly all of the areas covered by the 2001 rule. No project will proceed without his personal approval while the Obama administration decides how to handle the roadless rule.
The Orion North sale will allow Pacific Log and Lumber to harvest about 3.8 million board feet of timber from 381 acres on Revillagigedo Island in an area that borders Misty Fjords National Monument. About 2 miles of roads will be constructed to allow the logging.
Niel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council called the decision "deeply disturbing."
"It's a very tough decision to see," Lawrence said. "Environmentalists have tried long and hard to get this drainage, in particular, spared. ... But it may be most disturbing for what it signals about the future. This is a pristine, old-growth rainforest, and the Obama administration has no business selling it off to the timber industry."
USDA spokesman Justin DeJong noted that the sale was first offered a decade ago. "This sale is unique in that it was proposed prior to adoption of the Clinton roadless rule in 2001 and was explicitly allowed to proceed under that rule," he said. "Further, it is the judgment of the U.S. Forest Service that the sale is critical to keep a local timber mill open and to protect jobs associated with that mill."
DeJong added that Vilsack recognizes the importance of protecting roadless areas in the Tongass and that he has asked agency staff to work with local stakeholders to explore economic development opportunities "that are consistent with long-term conservation of the Tongass." He added, "USDA's intention is to examine whether there are additional resources that can be brought to bear that provide economic opportunities for local communities while conserving Tongass forests."
Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in March challenging the proposed timber sale, saying the Forest Service had failed to consider new scientific research and escalating costs to taxpayers of timber sales over the last decade. The district court judge disagreed, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to place an injunction halting the sale while appeals of the case continue.
The groups include the Tongass Conservation Society, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Cascadia Wildlands Project.
During the presidential campaign, Obama expressed his support for the roadless rule. Kate Glover of Earthjustice said the Orion North decision "comes close" to violating Obama's pledge to uphold the roadless rule. She noted that several other roadless area timber sales are in the pipeline for this summer.
"We're disappointed to see that this timber sale has been approved, and we hope it's not a signal for how the secretary's going to be reviewing future decisions about roadless timber sales," Glover said.
Alaska's two senators praised the decision as good for the state's economy. "This sale will help support the struggling Southeast [Alaska] timber industry, which depends on responsible access to the Tongass for survival," Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R) said in a statement.
NRDC's Lawrence said the economic argument is "both wrong and really scary." The industry can be sustained on timber from outside roadless areas, he said, taxpayers must pay a couple million dollars for the building of roads for the sale, and near-term jobs from "trashing the environment" must not be prioritized over long-term welfare.
Lawrence acknowledged that the Tongass sale does not violate the 2001 rule because it was grandfathered in as part of a short-term transition package for the region. "But the transition is long since over, the region has moved on, and to see this administration willing to let the clear-cutting continue ... is something we thought we didn't have to worry about," he said.
Two federal courts, one in California and one in Wyoming, have issued conflicting decisions on upholding or tossing the roadless rule while appeals continue.