Logging plan for Alaska's Tongass National Forest challenged in court

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Environmentalists in Alaska filed a lawsuit on Tuesday seeking to block a Trump administration plan to open vast swaths of the nation’s largest national forest to logging, nearly a third of it in old-growth timber.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, seeks to stop the U.S. Forest Service from going ahead with what opponents say would mark the largest sale of timber from the Tongass National Forest in 30 years under a plan the agency approved in March.

The court challenge argues that the sale would open old-growth woodlands on Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass to wide-scale logging without proper study of the environmental impact on what remains of North America’s largest temperate rain forest.

The timber sale was approved before the Forest Service had even identified specific sites where tree harvests and road-building would take place, the lawsuit said.

“This is a brazen attempt by the Forest Service to rewrite the rules for the forest, and it’s coming at the expense of habitat on Prince of Wales Island that’s important for wildlife and for people and communities, for hunting, fishing, recreation and tourism,” said Tom Waldo, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, the environmental group Earthjustice.

The Forest Service had no immediate comment.

The sale would put as much as 656 million board feet of timber up for auction over several years, 235 million of which is old-growth timber, Waldo said.

The sale area occupies 2.2 million acres, most of that within the boundaries of the Tongass, he said. Overall, more than 42,000 acres could be logged under the plan, with the remaining acreage open to road construction and related activities, according to Waldo.

The Tongass sprawls over nearly 17 million acres of spruce- and hemlock-covered islands, rain-drenched coastline and mountains making up most of Alaska’s southeastern panhandle. It is renowned for its centuries-old trees, its abundant salmon runs and wildlife, including bears, wolves and eagles.

Timber industry supporters see the forest as a vast storehouse of valuable wood commodities.

The lawsuit represents the latest volley in clashes between conservation groups and commercial timber interests over management of the Tongass going back several decades. In 2016, the Obama administration ended old-growth logging in national forests.

Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker