Justices will not hear dispute over Tongass exemption to national forest roadless area protection

View from Deer Mountain Trail
This photo shows a portion of the Tongass National Forest. Image courtesy USDA Forest Service.

The U.S. Supreme Court will not take up a long-running dispute over preserving large areas of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from logging.

The justices declined Monday to grant a petition for certiorari in the case, which involves an exemption from the landmark 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, and allowed a lower court decision that bans regulatory changes based solely on political considerations to stand.

“Today’s court order is great news for southeast Alaska and for all those who visit this spectacular place,” Tom Waldo, an attorney at Earthjustice who represented environmental groups in the case, said.

Encompassing nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. It extends along the coast of southeast Alaska for about 500 miles, with a variety of bays, coves, fjords, and glaciers within the national forest boundaries, and constitutes about seven percent of Alaska’s land. Wildlife found in the forest include salmon, wolves, brown and black bears, bald eagles, and the Arctic tern.

RACR was adopted by the administration of President William J. Clinton in January 2001, just days before the inauguration of a new President.  It did not initially exempt the Tongass. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service decided, during the process leading to RACR’s establishment, that the “long-term ecological benefits to the nation of conserving these inventoried roadless areas outweigh the potential economic loss to [southeast Alaska] communities.”

In 2003 the agency reversed itself. The agency, which had come under the leadership of President George W. Bush’s appointees, reached a conclusion exactly opposite to the one it had in 2001. This time, USDA Forest Service decided that “the social and economic hardships to Southeast Alaska outweigh the potential long-term ecological benefits” of RACR.

The Bush administration granted the RACR exemption to the Tongass as part of a settlement of a legal challenge to RACR filed by Alaska.

Environmental groups, an Alaskan native village, and a non-profit boat touring company challenged the exemption under the federal law that governs agency rulemaking. A divided panel of 11 judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in July 2015 that the agency had not adequately explained its change of mind.

Alaska asked the justices to review that decision on grounds that the San Francisco-based appeals court had read a 2009 opinion of the Supreme Court too broadly by assuming that it forbids changes in policy that are dictated by ideology.

That 2009 decision held that agencies must demonstrate “good reasons” for a change in policy direction indicated by a final regulation and that an explanation of that change has to include a “reasoned explanation . . . for disregarding the facts and circumstances that underlay or were engendered by the prior policy.”

USDA Forest Service is considering changes to the existing management plan for the Tongass that would permit continued old-growth logging for another 15 years. The agency released its proposed amendment to the Tongass National Forest Management Plan in Nov. 2015; it is likely to be adopted late this year.

President Barack Obama’s secretary of agriculture,  Tom Vilsack, directed the Forest Service in 2013 to shift timber production on the Tongass away from old-growth stands and toward young trees.

The case in which the Supreme Court declined to grant review is Alaska v. Organized Village of Kake, No. 15-467.

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