by J.R. Pegg
(ENS) WASHINGTON --
Bush administration has decided against further protection for the Tongass National Forest. Conservationists are outraged at the decision, which they believe ignores public opinion and endangers the most productive old growth trees within the world's largest remaining temperate rainforest.
The decision, which was announced Friday by the U.S. Forest Service, affects some 9.4 million roadless acres of the 16.8 million acre Alaskan coastal rainforest.
The agency decided not to designate any of the 9.4 million acres under review as wilderness, a listing that would have given the lands protection from logging and road building.
It reaffirms an agency recommendation released in May 2002.
The decision opens 330,000 acres of the disputed area to timber harvest, bringing the total acreage within the Tongass that can be logged to 670,000 acres.
The decision ensures the Tongass that "people use and visit will look virtually the same for the next 100 years," said Denny Bschor, U.S. Forest Service's regional forester for Alaska,
More than 90 percent of the Tongass remains safe from logging or development, Bschor said.
But conservationists contend that by failing to designate the remainder of the 9.4 million roadless acres as wilderness, the Forest Service has left the door wide open to logging of these lands, which include much of the forest's remaining old growth trees.
The decision threatens the "ecological heart" of the Tongass, said Eleanor Huffines, Alaska Regional Director for the National Wilderness Society.
Only four percent of the Tongass National Forest is considered old growth forest and this decision leaves "very little" of it protected, Huffines said.
The Tongass is considered by many to be the crown jewel of the national forest system. First protected in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it is the largest U.S. national forest and the largest remaining temperate rainforest on Earth.
The Tongass consists of old growth spruce, cedar and hemlock trees and provides critical habitat for wolves, grizzly bears, wild salmon, bald eagles and other animals and birds that have disappeared from other parts of the United States.
But much of the Tongass National Forest is not forest. Two thirds is rock, ice, wet lands and scrub timber. Of the 5.7 million acres of the Tongass that contain commercial forests, only 2.3 million acres are protected by law.
Over the past half century, the Tongass has lost a million acres of prime, old-growth forest to clearcut logging and the construction of more than 4,650 access roads. According to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, these roads and timber sales have been subsidized by $30 million taxpayer dollars each year.
The Forest Service was forced to review the 9.4 million acres for wilderness designation because it had neglected to do so when developing the 1997 plan to manage the Tongass.
The decision lifts an injunction against four timber sales on the southern Tongass, totaling some 65 million board feet of wood. Nine other sales are pending a final legal decision on the roadless rule put in place by the Clinton administration.
The agency plans to offer 145 million board feet of timber in the Tongass for sale this year, up from the 24 million board feet it sold last year.
The decision was hailed by the timber industry and by Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski, a Republican, who said there is "no justification" for additional wilderness protection within the Tongass.
"We are encouraged to see the Alaska Region of the Forest Service take what we believe is the right decision, because all land types of the Tongass are already represented in the vast wilderness areas of the Tongass and because those areas are underutilized," Murkowski said.
Murkowski and other Alaskan politicians have fought long and hard to increase local control of national forests in Alaska and to allow more logging and mining on public lands.
The agency's decision cannot be appealed because of a rider put onto last month's Omnibus Spending Bill by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican.
The decision goes against public opinion, conservationists contend. The agency received some 178,000 comments on the proposal, the majority of which supported further protection for the Tongass.
Huffines said that 86 percent of Alaskans attending 17 public meetings on the issue supported increased wilderness designation for the Tongass.
"The Forest Service ignored a two inch high stack of resolutions and failed to safeguard some truly special places that kept my family fed," said John Wisenbaugh, an Alaska fishermen, former logger and spokesman for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
"DC politicians and Forest Service bureaucrats didn't agree with what the public had to say, so they ignored us," Wisenbaugh said.
But Tongass Forest Supervisor Tom Puchlerz rejected the notion that these comments should be the driving force behind the agency's decision.
"We don't dismiss any comments," he said, "[but] the public process is not a vote counting process."
The decision, Puchlerz explained, was made to balance the needs of the forest and the Alaskan communities.
"This decision provides communities the opportunity to develop public facilities such as power lines, water supplies and transportation on our national forests," Puchlerz said. "This is important to us because private land is very scarce in Southeast Alaska."
Federal restrictions on logging in the Tongass, Stevens told his fellow Senators in February, have cost more than 2,500 of the 4,000 jobs it once supported.
"Timber companies in Southeast Alaska have been devastated by unemployment, due in large part to jobs lost in the timber industry," he said.
But conservationists say there are plenty of trees already available for harvest, including some 10 billion board feet of timber within easy striking distance of the existing road system within the Tongass.
Less protection for the Tongass will harm the state's tourism industry they say, a vital sector of the state's economy. Some 1.1 million people visit Alaska each year.
"Long term protection should be about fish and wildlife and recreation and tourism," Huffines said. "That is what is worth protecting. This decision doesn't protect Alaskan lifestyles or the health of the forest."
Along with the release of the Tongass decision, the Forest Service announced its intent to designate Nellie Juan/College Fiord, which is part of the Chugach National Forest, as wilderness. This protection, which must be approved by Congress, would safeguard some 1.4 million acres of the 5.5 million acre national forest.
But conservationists criticized a move they believe was intended to deflect attention from the Tongass decision. The announcement does not protect many of the ecologically critical portions of the Chugach, Huffines says.
No logging is currently permitted in the Chugach National Forest.
March 3, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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