Ninth Circuit rejects Tongass National Forest exemption to Roadless Rule

A federal appeals court has turned aside an attempt to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from a nationwide regulation protecting roadless areas.

Judge Andrew Hurwitz, writing for a majority of eleven judges sitting as an en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, concluded that the effort to prevent the Roadless Area Conservation Rule from applying to the country’s largest national forest violated the main federal law that governs agency rulemaking.

The majority held July 29 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the Forest Service, had reversed a finding made during the process of enacting RACR that exempting the Tongass “would risk the loss of important roadless area values” without any explanation.

“Elections have policy consequences,” Hurwitz wrote. “But . . . even when reversing a policy after an election, an agency may not simply discard prior factual findings without a reasoned explanation.”

The 69,000 square kilometer-large Tongass National Forest is the largest remaining temperate rainforest on the planet. Among the wildlife that depend on it are five stocks of Pacific salmon, grizzly and black bears, bald eagles, arctic terns, and the imperiled Alexander Archipelago wolf.

RACR, which was finalized shortly before President William J. Clinton left office in Jan. 2001, was the subject of a barrage of lawsuits. The rule did not go into effect until a federal appeals court in Denver rejected the last remaining legal attack on it in 2011.

Three judges dissented from the ruling, which might end a fight that began shortly after the administration of President George W. Bush wrote the Tongass exemption into the Code of Federal Regulations in Dec. 2003.

The state of Alaska and the Alaska Forest Association, Inc., which defended the Tongass exemption, could seek review of the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

The case is Organized Village of Kake v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, No. 11-35517.

Environmental groups, scientists urge opposition to bills that would expand National Forest logging

Opposition to efforts by some members of Congress to mandate more logging on federal forests is on the rise, with environmental organizations and scientists recently circulating strong statements.

The letters relate to two forestry bills pending in Washington: H.R. 1526 and S. 1479.

The scientists’ communique, which is signed by 250 individuals, urges Congress to avoid any requirement to increase logging in forest stands that have been damaged by fire.

“Both bills ignore the current state of scientific knowledge, which indicates that such activity would seriously undermine the ecological integrity of forest ecosystems on federal lands,” the scientists’ letter argues.

The scientists explained that snags, which are the standing remains of incinerated trees, are important habitat for a variety of bird species and that the wild flowers that grow in burned areas encourage re-population of the area by pollinators. They also point out a variety of other ecosystem benefits of burned forest stand areas that the legislation would compromise:

Numerous studies also document the cumulative impacts of post-fire logging on natural ecosystems, including the elimination of bird species that are most dependent on such conditions, compaction of soils, elimination of biological legacies (snags and downed logs) that are essential in supporting new forest growth, spread of invasive species, accumulation of logging slash that can add to future fire risks, increased mortality of conifer seedlings and other important re-establishing vegetation (from logs dragged uphill in logging operations), and increased chronic sedimentation in streams due to the extensive road network and runoff from logging operations.

The environmentalists’ letter, which is signed by 20, mostly West coast, advocacy organizations and is addressed to U.S. secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. secretary of interior Sally Jewell, highlights the likelihood that increased logging in disturbed areas of federal forests would contradict a recovery plan for the endangered northern spotted owl.

“Plans to boost post-fire logging in spotted owl habitat ignore the best available science and would cause harm to old-growth forests,” Steve Holmer, a senior policy advisor at American Bird Conservancy, said. “Government scientists have concluded that in order to recover the rapidly declining northern spotted owl population, protection is needed for forest structures created by fires such as large standing dead trees that are used by the owls to nest in.”

The impact of the bills on forest landscapes impacted by wildfire is not the only criticism aimed at them.

Several environmental groups have loudly objected to the House bill’s waivers of laws that currently apply to logging operations.

“H.R. 1526 would carve gaping loopholes in the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other bedrock environmental laws,” The Wilderness Society president Jamie Williams said in a statement. “This would lead to dirty water and air, and destroy recreational opportunities.”

The House bill would set a statutory floor on the amount of logging undertaken in federal forests, doubling the amount that now occurs.

It would also prevent judicial review of most decisions to cut trees within designated “forest reserve revenue areas” that, for the first time, would require Washington to comply with a “fiduciary” obligation to provide revenues from logging to counties in which federal forests are located.

H.R. 1526, the proposed Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 20. It is now pending in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee along with a similar bill, S. 1479.

President Obama warned on Sept. 18 that he would veto H.R. 1526, or similar legislation, if it reaches his desk.

Forest Service to try again on planning rule

The Forest Service will make a third attempt to update its rules governing the creation of management plans for national forests and national grasslands after courts rejected two efforts launched during the Bush administration.

According to a report in Monday’s Billings Gazette, the agency will seek public input before drafting a rule. That process is a marked departure from the one used by the Forest Service when it issued regulations in 2005 and 2008.

The comments provided to the agency will be used to develop an environmental impact statement.

The Forest Service Land and Resource Management Planning Rule is required by the nation’s primary statute governing the Forest Service. It was issued in 1982 and has not been updated since then.

Secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a speech last summer that “restoration” would be a primary goal of the agency and that the new planning rule would focus on protection of watersheds, the impacts of climate change and wildlife conservation.

“The Forest Service’s forest planning process provides an important venue to integrate forest restoration, climate resilience, watershed protection, wildlife conservation, the need for vibrant local economies, and collaboration into how we manage our National Forests,” Vilsack said.

The agency did not appeal the most recent decision rejecting a revised planning rule.

The Bush administration sought, in one of the most controversial aspects of its efforts to revise the planning rule, to eliminate a requirement to maintain “viable populations of existing native and desired non-native vertebrate species
in the planning area.”

Environmentalists challenge off-road vehicle use plan in Idaho national forests

Environmentalists have sued to block plans for allowing off-road vehicles in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, the largest in the 48 contiguous states, arguing that regulations issued by the USDA Forest Service fail to protect the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

The Idaho Statesman has a report here.

Colorado Rep. Salazar seeks wilderness protection for Forest Service land in Centennial State

Coloradans may soon see more of the public land in their state protected by the Wilderness Act.

Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., has introduced a bill that would designate more than 60,000 acres on four national forests as wilderness.

In keeping with a trend in recent wilderness bills, the proposal forecloses any possibility of federal government water rights in the protected areas.

The measure must be approved by the House Natural Resources Committee before being considered on the floor or moving to the Senate.