Roadless policy has benefits for Alaska

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2000

The Tongass and Chugach National Forests represent the largest remaining tracts of old-growth temperate rainforest in the world.

Established in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Tongass and Chugach are the country's largest national forests (approximately 17 million acres and 5.4 million acres, respectively). Unlike most national forests, the Tongass and Chugach still encompass many undisturbed watersheds with a full complement of all native species, including productive populations of bald eagles, wolves, brown and black bears, moose, black-tailed deer, mountain goats and five species of anadromous salmon.

Roadless areas are crucial to the protection of our nation's wildlife, fisheries and water resources because they represent the least disturbed habitats in an almost universally disturbed landscape.

Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck has recognized that roadless areas have become refugia - places where remnant populations of native species persist. For this reason, Chief Dombeck stated there are, ``compelling ecological reasons to take a cautious approach to new road construction,'' particularly in roadless areas.

In the Tongass, two million acres of roadless areas have been left open to development, including 450,000 acres of roadless old-growth forest. These roadless reserves are especially critical because only four percent of the Tongass land-base encompasses the low elevation, large old-growth forest most important to fish and wildlife, and much of this rare forest type has already been clearcut.

In addition, steep rugged terrain makes roads in this region vulnerable to erosion and landslides and are very expensive to construct. The ecological risks associated with developing these areas are extremely high, and may jeopardize commercial and sport fishing, hunting, tourism, recreation and subsistence in Southeast Alaska. These multiple resource values of the Tongass are basic to maintaining and increasing economic diversity in Alaska, as well as for maintaining the quality of life for people who live in Southeast Alaska.

Protecting roadless areas on the Tongass National Forest would not eliminate commercial forestry. There are already at least 4,650 miles of permanent roads within the Tongass, and over ten billion board feet of timber exists that is accessible from that existing road network. This timber supply should be capable of supporting a small-scale timber industry for the region.

The Chugach Forest was established primarily to protect its fish, wildlife and recreational resources. Much of the Chugach Forest is roadless and provides exceptional opportunities for outdoor recreation including fishing, hunting, kayaking, hiking, skiing, wildlife viewing, and photography, as well as an expanding tourism industry. Both of Alaska's national forests encompass an unusual system of coastal islands and fiords that provide unique marine access from kayaks and small boats to the Alaska Ferries and major cruise ships. The Seward Scenic Byway and Alaska Railroad bisect the Chugach Forest providing additional access for many different activities.

In a 1997 speech calling for better stewardship of our nation's roadless areas, the President of the United States stated: ``These unspoiled places must be managed through science, not politics.''

The Tongass Forest has been the focus of considerable scientific research that has demonstrated the importance of critical forest habitats for spawning and rearing salmon, winter cover and forage for deer and mountain goats, feeding and cover habitat for bears and wolves secure from human disturbance, and the habitat diversity necessary for supporting the unique plants and animals that characterize the northern rainforest. Research carried out on the Tongass has also clarified the need for better inventory of all forest resources and for development of forest management practices that are less detrimental to fish and wildlife than large-scale clearcut logging. Although a better scientific understanding of the ecology of the Tongass forest is needed for the sustainable management of all of its living resources, there has not been even a comparable level of research directed at understanding the Chugach Forest.

The Tongass was left out of the Forest Service's initial roadless moratorium. However, the Forest Service recently requested public comment regarding inclusion of the Tongass in the new policy. In response, over 300 North American scientists (including more than 100 Alaskans) have sent a letter to the President stating, in part, ``There is no scientific basis to exclude the Tongass National Forest from the Forest Service's national roadless policy. Excluding the Tongass would severely compromise the scientific legitimacy of any national policy on the protection of roadless areas in our national forest system. We encourage you Mr. President to please afford the remaining roadless areas within America's largest national forest and our nation's most substantial old-growth forest ecosystem the same level of protection and precautionary management as those in national forests throughout the rest of the United States.''

Including the Tongass and Chugach in the national roadless policy will help safeguard the ecological integrity of Alaskas rainforest. This action will also ensure the conservation and sustainable productivity of our valuable fish, wildlife, and recreational resources in perpetuity for our continued use as well as for use by future generations of Alaskans and all Americans.

David R. Klein, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has over 40 years of research and teaching experience in Alaska. He and his graduate students have been involved in numerous wildlife studies on the Tongass Forest. John W. Schoen, Ph.D., Senior Scientist for the Alaska Office of the National Audubon Society, is also an Affiliate Associate Professor of Wildlife Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Formerly a research biologist with Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Juneau from 1977 to 1989, he has conducted research on brown bears, black-tailed deer and mountain goats on the Tongass Forest.

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