Greenpeace and four allied organizations sued the US Forest Service on August 26 to stop its Big Thorne logging project. Located on Prince of Wales Island, in Alaska. This would be by far the largest sale of timber in the Tongass National Forest in about two decades.
At stake is the “likely … collapse of a sustainable and resilient predator-prey ecological community” on the island, according to a 2013 declaration by Dr. David Person. He is widely recognized as the foremost expert on the region’s endemic Alexander Archipelago wolves and the ecological system in which they are a key player. Other key players in the island’s predator-prey community are deer (the wolves primary prey), black bear, and hunters of those species.
Here is how events have played out so far.
A year ago we appealed (to the agency’s next highest level) the Tongass Forest Supervisor’s approval of the Big Thorne project and the adequacy of the environmental impact statement (EIS) it was based upon. Dr. Person’s declaration was an exhibit to our appeal. On the strength of his declaration, the agency put the project on hold, ordering that a multi-agency Wolf Task Force be convened to review and report on the declaration, and for the Tongass Supervisor to then issue a “supplemental information report” (SIR) based on the report. A SIR is used in determining whether new information is important enough to necessitate preparing a supplemental EIS, which would then require a fresh decision.
The task force had two members each from the Forest Service, the Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game (ADF&G), and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. In the first place, what was largely responsible for Person’s information being missing from the EIS – and consequently for the Forest Service’s deadly decision approving the project – was ADF&G’s execution of a State of Alaska policy to bury troublesome science that may interfere with maximum logging. Dr. Person had quit ADF&G shortly before issuing his declaration, and it was his internally-raised opinions about the project’s ecosystem impacts that ADF&G had buried. Early in the planning process Greenpeace had discovered those emails, dating back to 2010, through a public records request to ADF&G. We promptly submitted them to the Big Thorne planning team, but the agency simply ignored them until Person’s formal declaration was submitted with our appeal and forced its hand. Also, the Forest Service is deeply invested in this all-eggs-in-one-basket project, and even before the task force’s report and the SIR were completed Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell had already told the Senate that the project would go ahead with at most minor changes.
For these reasons it is unsurprising that the Wolf Task Force issued a split opinion. What is surprising is that one member from the Forest Service, a biologist who has done recent wolf research on Prince of Wales Island, bravely sided with Person. This June, Greenpeace and allies commented on the draft of SIR and the task force’s draft report. An exhibit to our comments included a rebuttal statement by Dr. Person to the task force report.
On August 21 the Forest Service issued its final SIR and Wolf Task Force Report, with no substantive changes. On August 26 we filed suit (see: complaint, press release) to (1) stop the project by forcing preparation of a Supplemental EIS and reconsideration of the project decision, and (2) force revision of the Tongass Forest Plan because its standards and guidelines are too weak to accomplish what the law requires – protection of the viability of the predator-prey community, including wolves, deer, and subsistence hunters.
Our co-plaintiffs are: Cascadia Wildlands, the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, the Center for Biological Diversity, and The Boat Company. We are represented by CRAG Law Center of Portland, Oregon.
Greenpeace is grateful to the McIntosh Foundation and The Boat Company for years of support for our efforts to protect wild creatures and ecosystem integrity in Southeast Alaska, and particularly to Michael McIntosh for his many decades of deep involvement for accomplishing that.