T he U.S. Forest Service just released its decision recommending that no more wilderness be added to the Tongass National Forest. I believe it was the correct decision. Here's why.
I believe that most people who are knowledgeable about the Tongass, including the history of federal policy changes resulting from legislative and administrative action, have concluded that the Tongass is not in any danger due to the lack of adequate existing protections.
The Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP), including this supplemental review regarding wilderness, was developed through an exhaustive process and sound science. Both the 1997 and the 1999 Records of Decision resulted in further reductions in potential timber harvest through land use designations and the implementation of standards and guidelines to protect habitat for fish and wildlife.
Of the 16.8 million-acre forest, approximately 9.4 million acres are forested. As a result of TLMP, a total of 664,000 acres are expected to be managed for timber. TLMP was supposed to be the decisional document for management of the Tongass, a fact underscored when we were told in 1999 that federal policy would "finally provide some certainty with regard to future uses and management direction on the Tongass." However, in 2001, after a federal judge was convinced by those who felt the 1997 decision did not go far enough in terms of protecting wild areas of the Tongass, the Forest Service was ordered to review the question of whether more congressionally designated wilderness areas were needed. This review process was just completed, and the Forest Service decided that the existing amount of land classified as wilderness or in other protected categories - so that 90 percent of the Tongass will be managed as wild lands into the future - was sufficient.
That's why I not only support the decision of the Forest Service regarding wilderness, but also feel there is at least one more decision to make.
Because of the extensive forest planning process which had occurred in the Tongass during the development of TLMP, the Tongass was originally excluded from the national roadless rule proposed in 2000 by the last administration.
That was the correct decision then, and, were the Department of Agriculture inclined to reconsider the issue, it would be the correct decision today.
In 1999, we were also told that the decision would give us the ability to "create a new future that builds prosperity on a diverse economic base." We have been working hard to maintain and create long-term high paying jobs, and have been pursuing infrastructure improvements such as improved Alaska Marine Highway and other transportation links, a regional electric intertie, port and harbor improvements, fisheries infrastructure, and completion of our shipyard.
The roadless rule is yet another significant change in federal policy that threatens potential progress, contradicts statements made by federal officials in 1999, and diminishes any hopes we might have had that we would successfully make a transition to a healthy new economy. If we are to have a healthy diverse economy, one key element is an adequate and stable timber supply. Southeast Alaska simply cannot stand the loss of 500 more direct jobs and the associated payroll on top of what we have already suffered.
Ketchikan can certainly not withstand further economic disruption. Implementing the roadless rule on the Tongass - and thereby ignoring the intensive planning, scientific studies and supplemental reviews which have occurred - is not simply bad policy, it is bad for our communities.
Perhaps its time to give the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan a chance to work, so that we have an opportunity to protect both the Tongass and the communities of Southeast Alaska.
Bob Weinstein is mayor of the city of Ketchikan.