ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A federal judge leaning toward arguments made by environmental group lawyers offered Thursday to issue an injunction against logging in roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.
However, after hearing more from lawyers representing the U.S. Forest Service and the timber industry, U.S. District Judge James Singleton said he would not issue a ''narrowly tailored'' injunction, but instead would hold an evidentiary hearing in February.
Singleton made the decision after both sides said they remained opposed over a central issue in the case -- whether 19 Tongass timber sales in remote areas should be logged. Environmentalists want the tracts in roadless areas of the forest protected as wilderness. Lawyers for the government and the timber industry want logging to proceed, citing damage to the Southeast Alaska economy.
''I think we need a hearing,'' said attorney Jim Clark, who represents the Alaska Forest Association, Concerned Alaskans for Resources and the Environment and the communities of Metlakatla and Coffman Cove.
The environmental groups want Singleton to reinstate a logging injunction he issued last year, this time with concessions to avoid disruption to Pacific Log and Lumber's operations in Ketchikan.
Singleton issued a temporary injunction last March that resulted in shutting down logging in the Tongass for nearly two months. He found that the Forest Service violated federal law when updating its management plan in 1997 by failing to sufficiently consider some roadless areas as eligible for wilderness designation by Congress.
Bruce Landon, a Department of Justice lawyer representing the Forest Service, argued that the agency is still revising the plan. The agency has said it does not need to manage roadless areas as wilderness while it is revising the plan.
''There is no basis for shutting down the Tongass,'' he said.
But Singleton said the Forest Service failed to do what was required years ago and now it was up to the court to decide how to keep the status quo until ''the agency rectifies the deficiency.''
''The court must infer if the agency had done what is was supposed to do ... it would have designated certain areas for further wilderness,'' he said.
If logging proceeded in areas that later were designated as wilderness, the damage would be permanent, Singleton said.
The Forest Service, meanwhile, is working on a supplemental environmental impact statement that should be completed by October.
The timber sales, many under contract for years, involve five companies. Two of them, Viking and Silver Bay Logging, account for 834 jobs and 56 percent of what remains of the timber industry in Southeast, Clark said.
He said if an injunction forced the two sawmills to shut down, it would cause the rest of the timber industry in Southeast to collapse.
Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund's Juneau office, disputed that claim.
''There is no evidence in the record to support that,'' he told Singleton.
Waldo said plaintiffs would strongly object to exempting the existing timber sales from any injunction issued by Singleton.
''It would virtually deny us any relief,'' he said.
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