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Maintaining existing roads in national forests will be a higher priority than building new ones, U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck announced Thursday.
The proposed new policy for managing roads does not mean any immediate change in operations at the Tongass National Forest, say regional Forest Service officials.
Jack Phelps of the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry group based in Ketchikan, said he agrees it 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 Alaska national forests will require new roads due to past Forest Service decisions, so a Catch-22 is in effect, he said.
Katya Kirsch, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said she's gratified the Forest Service is recognizing the environmental problems associated with roads.
``It looks at first glance like a good step in the right direction,'' Kirsch said.
Dombeck also announced the agency will involve local communities in a scientifically based review of existing and proposed roads in national forests, in order to set priorities for what roads to build, upgrade or decommission.
Although Dombeck stopped short of saying the Forest Service is proposing a permanent policy against any new roads in areas currently designated as roadless, 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 nationwide, 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 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 through the summer as a result of Dombeck's new road review.
The Tongass, currently 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, McLean said. 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, she noted. The industry doesn't always buy what the Forest Service offers for sale.
But if the proposed rule is adopted in the fall, new roads in designated roadless areas would be contingent upon the regional forester signing an environmental impact statement that there is a ``compelling need'' for the proposed projects, McLean said. Projects already scheduled would be grandfathered in, she said.
Phelps said the phrase ``compelling need'' is a politically charged term that has been defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as requiring a high level of proof for a project to go forward. ``That's the kind of thing that gives us a great deal of heartburn,'' he said.
Dombeck acknowledged that the question of road construction often has been ``a surrogate for another issue - whether to cut timber.'' But he said 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 he hopes to adopt a new rule on road management 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.''