The U.S. Forest Service is recommending no new wilderness areas be created in the Tongass National Forest after two years of work on a court-ordered wilderness study.
Alaska Regional Forester Denny Bschor said the decision released today will keep wilderness at current levels in the Tongass.
"The question we have to deal with is the question of need," he said. "With Southeast Alaska being in the toughest economical situation it's been in in years, (we're) making the national forest part of the solution of trying to help with that. ... Fifty-six percent of the entire wilderness system is located in Alaska. We had to take that into account."
In making the announcement, the agency reconfirmed support for asking Congress to designate Nellie Juan-College Fiord in Prince William Sound as wilderness. The 1.4 million-acre area is part of the Chugach National Forest in Southcentral Alaska.
The Tongass decision was criticized by Southeast Alaska environmentalists and applauded by the timber industry. It follows an earlier draft recommendation of no new Tongass wilderness designations from Tongass Forest Supervisor Tom Puchlerz.
Puchlerz said 38 percent of the 17-million-acre Tongass is subject to wilderness-type management. Wildlife and fish are abundant in the Tongass and the amount of wildland far exceeds current and projected demand by visitors and guides, he said.
"This decision provides communities the opportunity to develop public facilities such as power lines, water supplies and transportation on national forest lands," he said. "Under this decision, the Tongass National Forest will look virtually the same for the next 100 years. Wild places, wild things."
The Tongass wilderness study was ordered by U.S. District Judge James Singleton in spring 2001. He also imposed an injunction on logging in some parts of Southeast Alaska until the review was finished. The injunction will automatically lift in 45 days and four timber sales on the southern Tongass can go forward as a result, Puchlerz said.
The Forest Service plans to offer 145 million board feet of timber on the Tongass for sale this year, up from the 24 million board feet it sold last year, he said. The four sales covered by the injunction represent 65 million board feet of wood, he said.
Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham said the timber industry is relieved by the decision.
"It's unfortunate the court ordered them to waste their time doing that project," he said. "Hopefully the Forest Service can get on with signing individual environmental impact statements for timber sales and people can get back to work."
The Forest Service received 175,000 comments on the review and many Southeast Alaska residents spoke in favor of wilderness protection for places such as Berners Bay, Tenakee Inlet, Honker Divide and Port Houghton at hearings this summer. Aurah Landau, a grassroots organizer with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said the Forest Service's decision ignores local concerns.
"They made a short-sighted decision. They could have created a local solution," she said. "This is completely irresponsible."
Tim Bristol, executive director of the Alaska Coalition, an environmental group, said the Forest Service ignored science, the public and common sense.
"This decision is a disgrace, it's a complete cave-in to Alaska's politicians and their friends in the timber industry," he said in a press release.
Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski said he was pleased with the decision. He urged the Forest Service to move ahead with a five-year update of the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan.
"We are encouraged to see the Alaska Region of the Forest Service take what we believe is the right decision, because all land types of the Tongass are already represented in the vast wilderness areas of the Tongass and because those areas are underutilized," he said. "There is no justification for additional wilderness on the Tongass."
A congressional rider added to an appropriations bill earlier this month means the Tongass wilderness decision is not subject to appeal or lawsuits.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.