ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The U.S. Forest Service violated federal law by not proposing new wilderness areas when it updated a plan for managing Southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest four years ago, a judge ruled.
In a 32-page decision issued Friday, U.S. District Court Judge James Singleton Jr. said the agency breached the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act by failing to consider some roadless areas as eligible for wilderness designation by Congress.
''The Forest Service acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, capriciously and not in accordance with the law,'' Singleton wrote.
A spokesman for an environmental group said the decision means all logging on the Tongass' 9.4 million roadless acres must stop. Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Juneau, said all future timber sales in such areas are on hold until the Forest Service prepares a new environmental review.
The judge enjoined any further actions that would alter the wilderness character of any eligible roadless areas until the Forest Service complies with NEPA and NFMA.
''That's exactly what we asked him to do, so it was a slam-dunk victory for us, and we're obviously very excited,'' Waldo told the Anchorage Daily News. His firm sued on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Alaska Center for the Environment and Sitka Conservation Society.
If the decision is upheld upon appeal, then it likely would mean at least 400,000 acres of commercial timber could be taken away from loggers, said Jack Phelps, head of the Alaska Forest Association, a nonprofit trade association representing the timber industry.
But Phelps took heart in the fact that Singleton also ruled in favor of a claim brought by AFA. The trade group also sued the Forest Service over the 1997 revision to the Tongass plan, which dramatically reduced the amount of public timber open for logging.
The judge found that when former Under Secretary of Agriculture James Lyons revised the 1997 plan two years later and further reduced logging, he violated federal law by circumventing a public review process.
Singleton ordered the agency to follow the older plan, which allows a slightly higher level of logging, while it prepares another environmental study.
The parties have 60 days to decide whether to appeal Singleton's decision.
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