Conservationists sue to stop Big Thorne project


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A coalition of conservation groups filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service Aug. 22 in an effort to stop a large logging project in the Tongass National Forest.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Alaska Wilderness League and the Sierra Club are demanding that the U.S. Alaska District Court throw out the Big Thorne timber sale environmental impact statement and subsequent record of decision.

The Big Thorne project, on central Prince of Wales Island, calls for the eventual harvest of 148.9 million board feet of first-growth timber across about 8,500 acres.

The lawsuit claims the Forest Service overestimated timber demand in the EIS and did not properly account for the impact of timber harvest on wildlife.

It would harvest most of the high-quality Sitka black-tailed deer winter habitat and put the area gray wolf population at risk, according to the 32-page complaint filed against Region 10 Regional Forester Beth Pendleton and Tongass supervisor Forrest Cole, who approved the record of decision in June 2013.

“Big Thorne is a big mistake,” Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Executive Director Malena Marvin said in a formal statement. “There is no reason to unlawfully liquidate the Tongass’s remaining big-tree deer habitat when we can be managing forests for hunting, community-scale forestry and Southeast Alaska’s $2 billion per year fishing and tourism industries.”

The coalition claims wolf and deer populations are in jeopardy in the area already because of timber harvest and hunting.

The complaint states that the Big Thorne area could support 45 to 50 wolves in the mid-1990s. After the most recent field season, it states researchers determined four wolves lived in the area.

Additionally, it alleges the Forest Service approved the record of decision without having a viable wolf population estimate — needed to implement the Tongass Land Management Plan that the agency adopted to protect the viability of Tongass wolves.

The Big Thorne harvest would add 46 miles of new roads to the area without having up-to-date wolf population data, according to the complaint.

In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would begin investigating whether the region’s wolves should be listed as threatened or endangered.

When it comes to deer, the coalition claims the Forest Service did not adhere to its own guidelines that call for maintaining habitat capable of supporting 18 deer per square mile. It says the population in the Big Thorne area is below the 18 deer per square mile threshold, as it is throughout most of Prince of Wales.

The complaint alleges the Forest Service ignored the deer and wolf population concerns because it concluded healthy numbers of the animals could be maintained outside the harvest area.

Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the Forest Service should not be intimidated by the lawsuit.

“The weight of the evidence from State of Alaska and Forest Service biologists shows clearly that wolf habitat — and the deer the wolves prey upon — is not put at risk by additional logging on Prince of Wales Island,” Murkowski said in a formal statement Aug. 22.

Recent-year Tongass timber harvests prove the nearly 149 million board feet Big Thorne project is not in line with timber demand, the coalition alleges. In federal fiscal years 2010 to 2012, the annual Tongass harvest averaged 30 million board feet, making the Big Thorne project unnecessary to maintain the Forest Service’s goal of having up to three years supply of volume under contract to mills.

Prior to the Roadless Rule, which has hampered logging of new areas in the Tongass since its implementation in 2001, the annual harvest in the forest had never been less than 100 million board feet, according to the Forest Service. From 1980 to 2002, the average Tongass harvest was nearly 270 million board feet.

Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham said the Big Thorne sale has been advertised several times over the past year but the Forest Service has not approved a bid. He said about 5 million board feet of timber sales have been approved this year in Southeast, while the Forest Service plan calls for about 140 million board feet to be sold.

“We desperately need the timber,” Graham said.

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