Maintaining existing roads will be a higher priority than building new ones in national forests, U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck announced today.
The announcement means there will be no immediate change in the management of the Tongass National Forest, say regional Forest Service officials.
But a timber industry spokesman in Southeast doesn't like what seems to lay beyond 2000.
Dombeck also announced the agency will be involving local communities in a scientifically based review of existing and proposed roads in national forests to set priorities.
Although Dombeck stopped short of saying the Forest Service is proposing a permanent policy against any new roads in currently roadless areas of forests, he emphasized that the agency views maintenance as a higher priority than new construction overall.
He cited an $8 billion maintenance backlog for the current 380,000 miles of forest roads, saying that forest fires, noxious weeds and sedimentation problems in streams are increasing because of the deteriorating condition of many roads.
Dombeck, in a nationally teleconferenced news conference from Salt Lake City, suggested that more miles of roads would be decommissioned in coming years than would be added by construction. In some cases, roads could be turned into hiking or bike trails, he said.
``We've got to take care of what we have,'' he said. Given the maintenance issues, ``You put the shovel down and stop digging the hole deeper. . . . The fact of the matter is we're losing access to national forests.''
In Juneau, Forest Service spokeswoman Sheela McLean said there would be no change in Tongass operations as a result of Dombeck's new road review.
The Tongass, already exempt from an interim roadless policy spearheaded by President Clinton, is still scheduled this year for a maximum 71 miles of new road construction and 83.5 miles of road reconstruction. About half the activity would be in areas currently designated as roadless.
The new or reconstructed road mileage depends upon the award of proposed timber sales, McLean said. The industry doesn't always buy what the Forest Service offers for sale.
Dombeck acknowledged that the question of road construction often has been ``a surrogate for another issue - whether to cut timber.'' But he said that timber harvests probably would see only a slight decline under the process he's supporting, as most new road use is recreation- and tourism-oriented.
Alaska's congressional delegation and Gov. Tony Knowles have condemned Clinton's roadless initiative, which in the interim has halted development in many roadless areas of forests elsewhere in the country. The Alaska officials expressed concern that the Tongass would end up in the final roadless designation.
Dombeck attempted to separate the issues, saying that he hopes to adopt a new rule on road management on Sept. 1, when the interim roadless policy expires. ``The balance of interests is always a challenge to deal with, because the lands belong to all the people of the United States.''
And maintenance work is good for local economies, Dombeck said. ``If this isn't a local jobs program, I don't know what is.''
Jack Phelps of the Alaska Forest Association, a pro-industry group in Ketchikan, said he agrees that Dombeck's announcement probably means no change to the Tongass operations this year.
``The problem I see with this thing is that it's a further step down into the abyss of endless planning, which will increase the amount of money the Forest Service needs to operate and decrease the ability of the public to have access to its lands,'' Phelps said.
Most lands still open for timber harvest in national forests in Alaska will require new roads, due to past Forest Service decisions, so a Catch-22 is in effect, he said.