This begins the backstory to our big victory last week in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, over four Forest Service logging projects in our largest national forest — the Tongass. The ruling forces the U.S. Forest Service to reexamine its analyses of the projects' impacts on deer – the primary prey of the region’s unique and rare Alexander Archipelago wolf (Canis lupus ligoni) – as well as the viability of this wolf species and the availability of deer for hunters. Decisions for the logging projects need to be reconsidered.

The case is Greenpeace v. Cole, in which we and co-plaintiff Cascadia Wildlands were ably represented by attorneys Chris Winter (Crag Law Center) and Rene Voss, a natural resources attorney based in California.

The analysis errors the court recognized go beyond the four example projects that we litigated, having been repeated in the Forest Service’s planning of every significant Tongass timber sale between 1996 and 2008, under the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP). The errors affect a vast forest acreage and hundreds of millions of board feet of timber, much of which is yet to be sold by the agency for cutting.

When the Forest Service revised TLMP in 2008, it fixed those erroneous analysis methods, but only for use when planning new logging projects. The agency never went back to fix the past mistakes and then reconsider its earlier project decisions. Further, we have identified a new, equally egregious error that the Forest Service began making with the 2008 TLMP in its analysis of logging impacts on deer, and accordingly of impacts to wolves and hunters. Our challenge of the new error now awaits another 9th Circuit decision, in a separate lawsuit.

Every one of these errors (whose nature I will describe in a later blog) favors the continuation of excessive logging. The first evidence of what now appears to be a clear pattern of the Forest Service making significant errors on the Tongass that enables excessive logging came in a 2005 decision by the 9th Circuit in NRDC v. USFS. In that case, the court found that the agency had misread a timber market analysis done by its own economists, causing twice as much Tongass timber to be planned and offered for sale than the market could bear. The over-supply of timber allowed the timber industry to cherry-pick the most valuable timber – which is generally the best wildlife habitat – from among the available timber sales. That 2005 ruling forced the Forest Service to do the above TLMP revision, completed in 2008. The court held that, “[t]he Forest Service’s error in assessing market demand fatally infected the balance of economic and environmental considerations, rendering the plan for the Tongass arbitrary and capricious.”

This blog begins a multi-part series telling the story of the Forest Service's betrayal – for decades – of wolves, deer, people, and the ecological integrity of the Tongass. It is drawn from my years of investigative research for Greenpeace. I will tell the story simply, though it involves scores of logging projects, wildlife scientists in three agencies, intense pressures on the Forest Service from Alaska- and national-level politicians, the untimely death of a Forest Service whistleblower, thousands of pages of FOIA'd documents, and three lawsuits against the Forest Service.

-Larry Edwards
Greenpeace Forest Campaigner

The four remanded timber sales (N. to S.): Scott Peak, Overlook, Traitors Cove & Soda Nick. (base map: NASA/Worldwind)

Photo credit for wolf image: © John Hyde/wildthingsphotography.com