Full federal appeals court agrees to review decision exempting Tongass from Roadless Rule

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A full federal appeals court will review the decision allowing Alaska's Tongass National Forest to be exempt from federal restrictions on road-building and timber harvests in "roadless" areas."

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday announced an 11-member panel will review a split decision rendered by a three-judge panel in March, which said the U.S. Department of Agriculture had legitimate grounds in 2003 to temporarily exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule.

Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo said by phone from Juneau that the decision was great news for residents of southeast Alaska.

"This case is about the wild and undeveloped part of the Tongass, which are really important for hunting, fishing, tourism and recreation," he said. "These are the driving forces of the local economy, and today's order ensures that those places will remain protected until the court can give the issue a thorough review."

"Today's decision is extremely disappointing," said Sharon Leighow, spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell. "It was the state's position that this case did not meet the criteria for a rehearing and was properly decided by the three-judge panel."

"As a result of today's ruling, the status of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass will remain in doubt well into 2015, further harming the economy in Southeast Alaska," she said in a statement.

The state of Alaska brought the appeal that was heard by the three-judge panel.

The Tongass is the nation's largest national forest at about 26,500 square miles, or 17 million acres.

The Roadless Rule was created in 2001. It prohibits most logging and most road construction in roadless, undeveloped areas of the national forest, Waldo said. It has been challenged frequently in court, he said.

"All of those lawsuits have failed so far," he said.

The Bush administration in 2003 created a special exemption for the Tongass. The organized village of Kake and environmental groups sued, and a U.S. District Court judge ruled the exemption decision was arbitrary and capricious.

The state appealed, and when the three-judge panel reversed the decision in a 2-1 ruling, Parnell hailed the reversal as a "huge victory for Alaskans and their families who depend on economic development in the Tongass."

Parnell said it would allow Alaskans to restart rebuilding the timber industry.

Waldo said oral arguments will be heard on the case in mid-December in Pasadena, California.

The Forest Service has not offered Tongass timber for sale in roadless areas for about five years, Waldo said, and the decision will not affect upcoming timber sales.

It also will not affect mining, hydropower development or construction of power lines.

"It allows access for those things," he said. "It's a flexible rule that provides important benefits without causing economic disruption."

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