SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court nullified as many as 100 logging permits, a decision mainly affecting tree harvesters in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday that environmentalists and others should have been given a legal forum to protest new rules allowing the companies to produce more wood waste in estuaries and coastal zones than previously permitted.
At issue are the federal permits to run so-called “logging transfer facilities.” The facilities are estuaries or other coastal areas into which harvesters dump their logs before they are shipped away. The logs are tied together to form log rafts and they are transported floating in the water to market, a process that can cause pollution from bark and other wood debris in coastal inlets.
Two years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new guidelines that permitted harvesters to increase the amount of waste, but did not give environmentalists an opportunity to oppose the new measures. The three-judge panel pointed out that, had the government imposed stricter rules, logging interests would be making the same argument.
“If the EPA had reached the opposite conclusion, and had added additional requirements to the final permits, Alaksan logging interests would surely have taken the position that notice and comment had been inadequate,” Judge Sidney R. Thomas wrote for the San Francisco-based court.
Sharon Buccino, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney, said that the transfer facilities, which she called “logging dumps,” kill marine life and ruin coastlines.
“The ultimate goal is to preserve the ability of Alaskan natives and others to continue to use these waters for a variety of uses: subsistence fishing, commercial fishing, recreation and ecotourism,” she said. “The timber companies should not be allowed to monopolize this public resource.”
The permits in question will not be voided until the court’s decision becomes final in about a month or so. The court instructed the EPA to renew the permit-formulating process and allow the public the “ability to comment on whether the proposed permit complied with water quality standards.”
Bill Dunbar, an EPA spokesman in Seattle, said the agency was reviewing the decision and declined comment.
John Peterson, a Ketchikan, Alaska, attorney representing the pro-logging group, Alaska Forest Association, which opposed the environmentalists in the case, declined comment. John Tillinghast, a Juneau, Alaska, lawyer for logging concern Sealaska Corp., which sided with the forest association, did not return phone calls.
Generally, under most of the previous permits, logging groups were allowed to cover one acre of an estuary’s floor with up to 10 centimeters of waste. The new rules eliminated the one acre rule and said the so-called “zone of deposit” could comprise a company’s “project area,” which could be several acres.
The case is Natural Resources Defense Council v. EPA, 00-70890.