Sen. Ted Stevens has added wording to a federal spending bill that would block appeals once the U.S. Forest Service decides about new Tongass National Forest wilderness.
The language, which was inserted into a 1,000-plus page spending bill, would prevent anyone from appealing an upcoming wilderness decision or filing a lawsuit about it.
The Forest Service is reviewing 115 roadless areas of the Tongass for possible wilderness designation in a court-ordered study. An early version of the plan recommended no new wilderness. The final plan is due out in February or March, Tongass spokesman Dennis Neill said today.
"We're in the final stages of finishing up the analysis, response to public comments and mapping," he said.
The Forest Service decision will be a recommendation - only Congress can designate wilderness. Logging and road building generally are prohibited in wilderness areas.
Environmentalists are objecting to Stevens' rider. John Wisenbaugh, a Tenakee Springs resident who has pushed for wilderness protection, said the wording sets a terrible precedent.
"I'm pretty outraged at the audacity of Sen. Stevens to circumvent (the National Environmental Policy Act) and the public process altogether," he said. "If this amendment doesn't violate the Constitution, it certainly violates the spirit of it."
Wisenbaugh, a Southeast Alaska Conservation Council board member, and other Tenakee residents have asked the Forest Service to protect the Goose Flats, Kadashan, Long Bay and Seal Bay drainages near their community. The areas are important to fishing, hunting and recreation, Wisenbaugh said.
"We've asked for protection for years," he said. "It's clear to us that some of these areas should have been recommended for wilderness."
The language would stop anyone from appealing, raising the suspicions of activists like Tim Bristol, executive director of the Alaska Coalition. His group, which includes environmental, sporting, religious and labor organizations, will try to block the language.
"When you look at what the rider says, it points to the fact it's going to say little or no wilderness," he said. "They must know it's already in there. ... It already sounds like the fix is in."
But Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, said bigger issues are at play for Southeast's timber industry. The Forest Service can't offer much timber because of appeals, court injunctions and lawsuits, he said.
"It's a double-edged sword for us," he said. "They have 375 million board feet in timber sales held up. The best they'll be able to provide is about 50 million, and that's the best they can do until the chokehold is removed. Given all that, we're better to have this language, even though it could work against us. We'd support the language."
Stevens, an Alaska Republican, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The sentence he inserted says the agency's Tongass wilderness decision "shall not be reviewed under any Forest Service administrative appeal process and its adequacy shall not be subject to judicial review by any court of the United States."
Stevens' spokeswoman couldn't be reached for comment by the Empire's midday deadline.
Frank Murkowski, when he was in the Senate last fall, originally proposed the rider. Murkowski, now Alaska's governor, said then he wanted to make sure the money and time spent creating the 1997 Tongass management plan "will result in some degree of certainty for harvesting small portions of the forest to sustain the industry that's there today."
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