Suit seeks to overturn Tongass roadless exemption

AP News
Posted: Dec 23, 2009 9:18 AM

An Alaska Native village joined in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that aims to protect some of the Tongass National Forest's remaining stands of old growth trees.

The Organized Village of Kake and other plaintiffs are seeking to end the 2003 decision under the Bush administration that exempted the Tongass from the Clinton-era Roadless Rule. The rule protects roadless areas in national forests from commercial logging and road building.

The 9.3 million-acre Tongass is covered by a separate rule on road construction under an agreement reached with then-Gov. Frank Murkowski.

The exemption was to be temporary but is still being implemented by the Forest Service, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit seeks to set aside the exemption for the Tongass and all Forest Service decisions that are not consistent with the 2001 rule.

Plaintiffs' lawyer Thomas S. Waldo of Earthjustice described the four reasons for the exemption as "phony" and "unsupported."

"We are going straight at those reasons," he said.

Andrew Ames, a Department of Justice spokesman, said the agency would review the complaint and respond in court.

The lawsuit says the Forest Service continues to operate on the premise that the Roadless Rule does not apply to the Tongass as evidenced by two timber sales authorized last year requiring road construction in roadless areas of the forest.

Mike Jackson with the Organized Village of Kake said that the forest lands are important sources for food and medicine while also fulfilling artistic and spiritual needs.

"Our deer hunting and other customary uses of the forest have suffered too much already from past logging," he said. "We must not lose roadless areas here."

Jackson said there have been more than 50 timber sales on Kupreanof Island over the years, but the tribe has benefited little.

"We have nothing to show for all the money made off our rural resource here," he said.

The village, which is a federally recognized tribe of about 400 members, was joined in the lawsuit by half a dozen conservation groups, a tourism group and a company that relies on tourism.

Hunter McIntosh, vice president of operations for The Boat Company, said his company operates high-end cruises between Juneau and Sitka and relies on Alaska's pristine vistas to keep customers satisfied.

"Folks come from the Lower 48 to see pristine wilderness, to fish for salmon and see eagles and bears," he said. "If you take those pretty places away, you put people like us out of business."