The Alaska Region Forest Service and the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station will begin a congressionally mandated, 10-year program to inventory and analyze Alaska's national forest wilderness areas this year. The program will entail monitoring up to 93 plots a year to gain baseline information on forest health. While 37 of these plots can be safely accessed on foot, up to 56 plots can only be accessed safely by helicopter. Helicopter landings are not normally allowed in these wilderness areas.
After serious consideration, and in accordance with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the Forest Service Manual, I am allowing these survey crews to use helicopters where they are needed to conduct operations safely.
I know there may be opposition to any helicopter landings in wilderness areas, and my decision was not made lightly. I carefully considered minimum requirements, public comment and operational parameters, but the safety of these survey crews was paramount in my decision.
Helicopter use will be subjected to a continual review process to assess its impact on the public's forest experience, the impacts on the land and resources, and the safety of the survey crews. Helicopter use will be closely monitored. Strict mitigation measures will be used to reduce and limit any impacts this use may cause.
There are 7.5 million acres of wilderness areas in the Tongass and Chugach national forests, including 19 wilderness areas and a wilderness study area. The baseline information gathered from these plots will allow the Forest Service to monitor changes that are affecting these treasured resources over time.
Public support for the Forest Services' efforts to protect and manage our natural resources is important. My decision provides an appropriate balance between crew safety and the protection of our forests.
Dennis Bschor has been the regional forester for the Alaska Region of the Forest Service since early 2002. He is responsible for managing approximately 22 million acres of national forest land in Alaska.