Congress approved a $397.4 billion spending bill Thursday that contains millions for Alaska projects and has been watched closely by Southeast environmentalists and the logging industry.
The bill, which provides funding for every federal agency except the Pentagon, weighed 32 pounds and exceeded 3,000 pages. The package passed by votes of 338-83 in the House and 76-20 in the Senate.
The legislation funds "pre-drilling" in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, bars environmental lawsuits over reissuing permits for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, and would block appeals or lawsuits of a pending wilderness review for the Tongass National Forest in Southeast.
The bill also includes $300,000 to restore the Wickersham House in Juneau, $1 million for a Juneau heliport environmental study, $2 million to complete construction of a dam in Kake, and $10 million for hydroelectric links in Southeast Alaska, among other items.
As lawmakers debated the bill in Washington, D.C., about 65 Juneau activists voiced objections to the bill's wilderness rider at a rally downtown. Tom Lee of Juneau said the provision to block wilderness appeals takes the public's voice away.
"The Tongass National Forest belongs to all Alaskans and it belongs to every American, not just a limited few politicians and big corporations," he said. "What gives anyone the right to take our voices away? That's not right. It's un-American."
The protesters penned heart-shaped valentines to Alaska Regional Forester Denny Bschor, asking him to protect places such as Berners Bay near Juneau in the wilderness review.
U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, defended the wilderness measure on the Senate floor. Environmental groups have been abusing the National Environmental Policy Act with lawsuits that lock up public resources and waste taxpayer money, he said.
"Judge Singleton's mandate entitled the environmental groups to a review, it did not entitle them to a Forest Service recommendation that is favorable to their position," he said. "We have been through the process and we all must recognize and abide by the Forest Service's final ruling."
U.S. District Judge James Singleton ordered the U.S. Forest Service to analyze the Tongass for possible wilderness protections in 2001 after reviewing lawsuits filed against the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan.
Congressional negotiators dropped provisions of the federal bill that would have exempted Alaska's Tongass and Chugach national forests from former President Clinton's so-called "roadless rule," which bans logging and road building on sections of national forests. They also dropped a clause that would have required the Forest Service to meet market demand for Tongass timber.
Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski's chief of staff Jim Clark told the Southeast Conference of Mayors on Thursday the state would continue to pursue Alaska exemptions to the roadless issue in court.
"We're going to be very supportive throughout Southeast to bring back new mills for timber," he said. "If you have a plan, we'll help you."
Deputy Regional Forester Steve Brink told the mayors the wilderness review should be released in the next two weeks.
The spending bill also expands a nationwide pilot program for thinning fire-prone forests and will allow logging companies to keep trees they harvest in exchange for reducing undergrowth. Environmentalists called it a blatant tree grab and said it will allow commercial interests to supervise timber sales without proper Forest Service oversight.
Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, described the program as an ingenious way to get private companies to help with forest thinning.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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