Forest Service opens 3.4M acres of Tongass Forest to logging
Associated Press Writer
More than 3 million acres in Alaska's Tongass National Forest would be opened to logging and road building under a Bush administration decision that supporters believe will revive Alaska's timber industry but environmentalists fear will devastate the forest.
The Bush administration on Friday released a management plan for the southeast Alaska forest, the largest in the country at nearly 17 million acres. The plan would leave about 3.4 million acres open to logging and other development, including about 2.4 million acres that are now remote and roadless. About 663,000 acres are in areas considered most valuable for timber production.
Alaska Regional Forester Denny Bschor, who approved the new Tongass management plan, said its goals are to sustain the diversity and health of the forest, provide livelihoods and subsistence for Alaska residents and ensure a source of recreation and solitude for forest visitors.
"There may be disappointment that the (allowable timber sales) hasn't increased or diminished, depending on your viewpoint," Bschor said in a statement. "What is significant in the amended plan however, is our commitment to the state of Alaska to provide an economic timber sale program which will allow the current industry to stabilize, and for an integrated timber industry to become established."
The new plan adds 90,000 acres to old-growth reserves and protects 47,000 acres of land considered most vulnerable to development. It also pledges the Forest Service to work with Indian tribes to protect and maintain sacred sites across the forest, often labeled the "crown jewel" in the national forest system. At more than 26,000 square miles, the Tongass is larger than 10 states.
Environmentalists said the plan continues a Bush policy of catering to the timber industry.
"The new plan suffers from the same central problem as the old plan. It leaves 2.4 million acres of wild, roadless backcountry areas open to clear cutting and new logging roads," said Tom Waldo, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.
"This plan simply ignores economic realities. Logging these pristine areas makes no sense," said Christy Goldfuss with Environment America, another advocacy group.
While the plan would allow timber sales of up to 267 million board feet a year _ enough for nearly 27,000 two-bedroom homes _ demand for timber is far short of that, Goldfuss and others said. Less than 20 million board feet was logged on the forest last year.
A board foot is the volume of a piece of wood 1-foot square and 1-inch thick. It takes about 10,000 board feet to build a two-bedroom home.
Bschor, in an interview, said 267 million board feet was a maximum cap for annual logging _ not a goal of the management plan.
"It's probably not likely that we're going to come close to that" in the foreseeable future, he said. A more realistic goal is 100 million board feet a year_ and even that will take major revamping of the timber industry in Alaska, Bschor said.
The new plan envisions a phased approach that will help stabilize the volume of timber available and help the industry plan better, Bschor said.
But environmentalists said the plan seeks to prop up a declining industry.
"The evidence is clear: there is no demand for Tongass timber and the federal government is simply throwing good money after bad, building expensive roads in remote areas to sell timber the global economy can't absorb," Goldfuss said.
The Alaska Forest Association, an industry group, said in statement that the plan may not meet the industry's needs. If necessary, the group said it will file an appeal challenging the rule in court _ a threat also made by environmentalists.
"It is critical that the final plan ... allows our industry to survive," said Owen Graham, the group's executive director. "Survival means returning to a realistic timber supply level in Southeast Alaska, not a continuation of the starvation level we have been struggling with for the last few years."
The plan released Friday stems from a series of lawsuits filed by environmental groups in 2003, which forced the Forest Service to adjust its timber sale program away from roadless areas to land that can be reached by roads that meander for 3,700 miles through the forest.
In 2005, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a 2003 plan on grounds that the Forest Service had mistakenly doubled the volume of timber needed to supply local sawmills and failed to consider better protections for roadless areas.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin congratulated the Forest Service on finalizing the Tongass plan, which has been long awaited in Alaska. Palin and Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell signed a "shared vision statement" that establishes a plan for sustainability of the Tongass and Southeast Alaska.
"This is a tremendous step toward having a sustainable, integrated timber industry," Palin said. "Speaking now with one voice, we remain committed to responsible development that protects the diversity and health of the forest's wildlife while sustaining jobs and subsistence for residents of Southeast Alaska."
The plan takes effect 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register, which Bschor expected by mid-February. Groups have 90 days to issue a legal challenge.
On the Net:
More details, as well as maps, are available at the Forest Service Web site: http://tongass-fpadjust.net/FPA_ROD.htm
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