More than 3 million acres of pristine wilderness in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest would be open to logging and road building under a management plan released Friday by the U.S. Forest Service.
At 17 million acres, roughly the size of West Virginia, the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska is the country’s largest national forest and the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rain forest. It contains grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, eagles and five species of wild Alaskan salmon.
Under the new plan, about 3.4 million acres of the forest would be open to logging and development. Of this acreage, about 2.4 million are in roadless areas, and about 663,000 acres are considered to have trees valuable for timber production.
Local political officials hailed the plan as a reasonable way to maintain the area’s logging economy.
But environmentalists portrayed it as the latest in a series of attempts – including similar efforts in Idaho and Colorado – by the Bush administration to dismantle Clinton-era protections of roadless areas and open them to logging before President Bush leaves office.
Land-management plans usually remain in effect for a decade.
“We’re at a crucial time right now to make sure we’re looking at a future that retains some of this landscape and some of this way of life for future generations,” said Laurie Cooper, a rainforest program director for the Alaska Wilderness League.
“So much of a focus of the management plan is logging when, in fact, it’s less than 1 percent of the economy. … Commercial fishing, tourism and recreation are the two largest private industries that depend on the forest.”
The plan adds 39,000 acres to old-growth reserves that are off-limits to logging and protects 47,000 acres of “karst” lands, which are limestone formations considered vulnerable to development.
The forest service also plans to consult with native Alaskan tribes to protect and maintain sacred sites.
The new framework amends the 1997 management plan, which underwent 33 appeals through nearly a decade of debate and litigation. Many expect legal appeals to the latest plan.
“The new plan suffers from the same central problem of the old plan,” said Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice in Juneau, Alaska.
“It still leaves 2.4 million acres of wild, roadless backcountry areas open to clear-cutting and new logging roads.”
A 2005 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the Forest Service mistakenly had almost doubled projections of timber demand from the Tongass in the 1997 plan and required that it be amended.
The amended plan does not change the maximum timber that can be harvested from the land – 267 million board feet per year, said Denny Bschor, regional forester for the Alaska region of the U.S. Forest Service, who approved the amended plan.
But it does require that logging be phased in, starting in less-sensitive areas already cut by roads.
Bschor said the plan was a measured approach that would allow the Forest Service to balance environmental concerns with those of the industry and community.
“We see what’s really possible on a gradual basis without jumping to the end and then having everybody mad at us, because we have to enter places that are very sensitive to the environmental community,” Bschor said.
The Alaska Forest Association Inc., a timber industry group, said in a statement that it was reviewing the plan and would file an appeal if it found the plan does not allow the timber industry to meet supply needs.
The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, developed in the Clinton administration and passed in 2001, prohibited road construction and logging throughout millions of acres of America’s national forests. In 2005, the Bush administration exempted Tongass National Forest from the roadless rule, then repealed the rule entirely, allowing states to determine their own plans individually.
The repeal was struck down in court, and the rule was reinstated in 2006. But Idaho and Colorado are in the process of trying to open their roadless areas, about 10.1 million acres, to logging.