U.S. judge issues 11th-hour halt to Tongass National Forest timber sale

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Sept 23 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday temporarily halted a Trump administration plan for logging in part of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, barring a disputed lease sale a day before bids were to be opened.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason issued an injunction that blocked the U.S. Forest Service from proceeding with a sale of old-growth spruce and hemlock on Prince of Wales Island at the southeastern tip of Alaska, saying an environmental impact report fell short of legal standards.

The Forest Service study failed to identify specific areas that would be logged, and "does not fully explain to the public how or where actual timber activities will affect localized habitats,” Gleason wrote in her ruling.

The failure to look at those specific impacts is at the heart of the lawsuit, said Buck Lindekugel of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, one of the environmental plaintiffs.

"This is the very type of bad decision-making that Congress tried to end when it passed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1971," Lindekugel said. "The Forest Service should know how to do its job and not cut corners, and the court said that’s unacceptable."

Dru Fenster, a Juneau-based spokeswoman for the Forest Service, declined to comment on the ruling. Fenster also said she could not offer details about any bids that might be pending.

Gleason said she would issue a more permanent ruling on the case by next spring.

The 16.7 million-acre (6.8 million-hectare) Tongass, the largest U.S. national forest, has long been a flashpoint of contention. Sprawling over mountains, glaciers, coastlines and islands, it holds most of the world’s last intact temperate rain-forest ecosystem.

It holds timber and mineral resources attractive to commercial interests, but it is also important to wildlife and to the tourism and fishing industries

The Tongass is one in a series of Prince of Wales Island sales that the Forest Service intends to hold over 15 years, providing over 200 million board feet of timber from 42,000 acres (17,000 hectares) of land, most of that old-growth habitat previously spared the axe.

Logging would be done primarily by clear-cut and would be accompanied by up to 164 miles (264 km) of new roads, according to the plan the Forest Service approved in March.

The Trump administration has said it is contemplating a new rule that would exempt Tongass from a prohibition on new logging in roadless areas of national forests. (Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney)