rainforest wolf, ©B. Bartel/USFWS

This week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments in a legal case that will determine the future of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The court will be asked to decide whether the Forest Service must protect 9.3 million acres – an area more than twice the size of Connecticut – from old growth logging and road construction. Because old growth forests in the Tongass are vital wildlife habitat, Defenders joined the effort to require the Forest Service to stop this forest destruction.

The main issue in the lawsuit is the Forest Service’s Roadless Rule. In 2001, the Forest Service created the Roadless Rule to protect all remaining areas in the national forests that had no roads or signs of human development. One-third of all national forests qualified as roadless; more than 58 million acres. The Forest Service banned all new road construction, logging, and other development in those remote, mostly untouched areas.

Tongass National Forest, Alaska

Tongass National Forest, © Mark BrennanThe Tongass National Forest in Alaska is the nation’s largest national forest. The dense and ancient forest consists of hundreds of islands scattered throughout Alaska’s southeast panhandle.

Under the Roadless Rule, the Forest Service protected 9.3 million acres of old growth forest in the Tongass. Those roadless areas provide habitat for important species like Alexander Archipelago wolves and Sitka black-tailed deer, and are home to the headwaters for millions of spawning salmon.

The large, old growth trees also store millions of tons of carbon. Leaving old growth trees in the forest is an important and natural way to help slow the effects of global climate change. Experts agreed that stopping logging and new road building in the Tongass was critical to the future of the forest.

But right after the Roadless Rule was created, the State of Alaska sued the federal government in a misguided attempt to keep the Tongass open for more old growth logging. Although the state had a weak legal case, the Bush Administration decided to settle and accept the state’s demands. The settlement resulted in a sweetheart deal for Alaska in which the Forest Service made Alaska’s forests exempt from the Roadless Rule. The Tongass Exemption put 9.3 million acres of roadless areas in the Tongass back on the chopping block.

Defenders and a coalition of environmental groups, along with Alaska Native villages, committed to protecting the Tongass, then brought this case against the Forest Service. We argued that the Bush Administration violated federal law when it removed protections for Alaska roadless areas because the Forest Service did not adequately explain its decision. It also did not consider the environmental consequences of reopening the Tongass to road building.

In March 2011, the federal district court in Alaska agreed that the Tongass Exemption was illegal and ordered the Forest Service to reinstate the Roadless Rule in the Tongass. That victory, however, was short-lived. The Forest Service, joined by logging companies and the State of Alaska, appealed the district court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit. In March 2014, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, once again putting the Tongass and its wildlife in danger.

After the Ninth Circuit’s decision, we petitioned the entire Ninth Circuit to rehear the case. Such a rehearing, called an en banc review, is rare, and involves a panel of 11 judges instead of the usual 3 judges that decide normal appeals. The court granted our request, and this week 11 judges will hear our arguments for protecting roadless areas in the Tongass. We hope that the Ninth Circuit will make the right decision, giving the Tongass and its wildlife the protection it deserves once and for all.

Andy Erickson is the Alaska Representative at Defenders of Wildlife