Greenpeace identified Alaska's coastal rain forest as the rarest forest type on Earth and deserving of the most protection from logging and road building, in a report it released Monday.
The international environmental group's report, "America's Keystone Forests," described Alaska's coastal forests - including the Tongass and the Chugach national forests - and 10 other forests as the nations' last remaining blocks of contiguous forest.
"The Forest Service has actually been promoting their destruction," said Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace in Washington, D.C. Hwa said the report was timed to coincide with the Forest Service's centennial celebration in Washington D.C.
Greenpeace said the Tongass is especially vulnerable to habitat loss because of its isolated island geography. The report calls for an end to "industrial-scale logging" and road-building.
Very little logging occurs in the Chugach and "in terms of the global market, there is very little use of Tongass timber," said Larry Edwards, a Greenpeace field officer in Sitka. "It is very marginal and it's always been highly subsidized," he said.
Edwards is one of 22 Greenpeace activists charged with misdemeanors for blocking a Tongass road-building project at the Finger Point timber sale near Petersburg last August.
The federal road project cost more than $680,000 but the profit for the timber sale was estimated at $70,000.
"There's no reason that U.S. taxpayers should be paying for that," Edwards said. His and the other Greenpeace activists' cases are scheduled for a federal magistrate court hearing on Jan. 31 in Ketchikan.
Edwards said logging projects in Tongass old growth enclaves threaten some of Southeast's most valuable wildlife habitats.
While the Forest Service disagrees with that assertion, the Greenpeace report stated "many scientists believe the viability of several species in (the Tongass) is not assured beyond 100 years."
That was a reference to a 1994 peer review and subsequent statements in 1996 and 1997 by 12 members of a national panel of 18 scientists who cited Tongass forest rules issued in 1997 as inadequate to protect native species.
"There are no threatened or endangered species on our forest after 100 years of our management," responded Tongass National Forest spokesman Dennis Neill. "If we had done a terrible job, there wouldn't be a wonderful forest.
In terms of logging in undeveloped areas, Neill said the Forest Service selected 300,000 acres for harvest out of 5.8 million designated roadless acres. "Many of our critics would say that's a poor balance on the production side," Neill said.
Only three medium-sized sawmills remain in Southeast Alaska: in Wrangell, Ketchikan and Klawock. A recent study by Juneau's McDowell Group found that many Tongass timber sales can't attract bidders and about 40 percent of the timber harvest wasn't profitable because of low-quality wood. The study suggested more than doubling the Tongass' 150 million-board foot goal for annual timber production.
Edwards said the Tongass timber program is "creating jeopardy situations in the long term."
"With the Forest Service intent on logging some of the most spectacular places left - areas like Tenakee Inlet, Port Houghton and the Cleveland Peninsula - it's no surprise that the agency's actions have drawn international criticism," said Emily Ferry, a community organizer for the Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
The Alaska Forest Association's executive director, Owen Graham of Ketchikan, said giving in to Greenpeace could mean an end to Southeast Alaska's timber industry.
"That's probably Greenpeace's goal," Graham told The Associated Press.
Other keystone forests cited in the Greenpeace report are Maine's North Woods, the Blue Ridge, the Northern Cascades and the Florida Panhandle forests.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.