There is nothing that clouds a politically charged decision about the environment more than for it to have been made through flawed process at the 11th hour.
Having endured an extended presidential election in which a politically partisan U.S. Supreme Court trumped a politically partisan Florida Supreme Court, the nation's collective level of cynicism has been off the charts for weeks.
Now comes - perhaps the better verb is "goes" - the Clinton administration doing what it may genuinely believe is in the best interest of the Tongass and other national forests. On Friday, the president approved new U.S. Forest Service regulations that ban road-building and most logging in 58.5 million acres of federal forests, including 15 million acres in the Tongass.
The decision was accompanied by predictable props and comments.
"Today, we preserve the final frontier of America's national forest for our children," the president said.
The new regulations leave "a legacy of wild forests for all Americans who love to hunt, hike, fish and camp," said the executive director of the Sierra Club.
Alaskans are among the Americans who love to hunt, hike, fish and camp. "Environmentalist" should not be interpreted as a dirty word by us any more than "traditional extractive industries." As fair-minded people, we seek a balance. We want our forests protected for recreational uses, but we also recognize that forests are a commercial resource that provides jobs as well as lumber to build houses and apartments here and throughout the Lower 48.
If you think housing prices are ridiculously high, the decision announced Friday in Washington, D.C., is certain to push housing costs even higher. Higher housing costs combined with the jobs that will be lost when logging is reduced seems like a double whammy to many Alaskans. Gov. Tony Knowles called the new regulations a double-cross.
Through his press secretary, Knowles offered strong criticism of the decision, saying it "makes a mockery of the public planning process that went into the Tongass Land Management Plan." Attorney General Bruce Botelho is said to be working on a lawsuit based on the principal that the TLMP process forbids an "executive fiat" that would overturn a regulatory process that took 10 years and $12 million to complete.
Knowles, a Democrat, is calling on Sen. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, both Republicans, to lead an effort to overturn the decision through legislation.
As was the case with counting votes in Florida, we have a process problem.
Residents of Southeast Alaska may be more divided about the merits of the national forest policy decision than they were about Bush vs. Gore. But the outcome of the forest policy issue may have no more to do with merit than the popular vote had to do with who is about to enter the White House.
Expect the decibel level of discussion to be high for months to come. Expect to hear this, too: Whether Clinton did the right thing for the forest and all of its users depends who how you define "right." Right for who, how many, for how long and at what cost? Is the decision final, fair, legal and enforceable? Even if it was legal, can it be reversed?
Clinton leaves office trying to bolster his legacy as a strong protector of the environment. This latest decision may be popular in the Lower 48, but it's Alaska's timber industry jobs that could be lost.
Who knows whether President Clinton or Gov. Knowles will prevail. The soon-to-be Bush administration may lead its own charge to overturn the new regulations. Congress or private industry may be the driving force in a challenge. Or, the backlash may play out and the Tongass may become and remain roadless.
The only thing we can be sure of now is the standing of Southeast Alaska's Tongass National Forest as the biggest prize in the battle to forge a national environmental policy.
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