FAIRBANKS -- A new report requested by Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski calls into question the way a federal official handled appeals of the agency's Tongass Land Management Plan.
Jim Lyons, undersecretary for the Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service, took unprecedented authority in reducing the amount of harvestable timber based upon concerns cited by environmentalists, according to a report for the U.S. General Accounting Office.
What the GAO called a ``unique process'' of resolving appeals cut the allowable harvest by 30 percent last year, which riled the timber industry but won praise from environmentalists.
The Tongass plan, finished in 1997, established the acreage open to timber harvest.
Environmental groups and industry immediately appealed the plan. Rather than reopen the plan to public input, Lyons modified it in April 1999 to reflect several of the environmental groups' concerns, the GAO said.
Lyons' changes reduced the acreage that the Forest Service considers suitable for timber harvest.
He also moved 40 percent of the remaining timber-cutting areas into 200-year harvest rotations, rather than of 100-year rotations, and he decreased the allowable road mileage in cut areas.
These actions, by rough estimate, trimmed the allowable annual harvest in the Tongass from 267 million board feet to 187 million board feet.
``This was the first time that an undersecretary approved substantive modifications to a forest plan and issued initial appeal decisions based on the plan as modified,'' Jim Wells, GAO director of energy, resources and science issues, said in a summary letter addressed to Murkowski, a Republican.
The GAO report quoted Lyons as saying he made the changes to ``make a good plan better'' and to speed up the appeals process.
Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, requested the GAO review of Lyons' action. He said the report confirmed his suspicions.
``It certainly calls into question whether simple due process has been followed, whether the public has been treated fairly, and whether the plan can stand up to the test of judicial scrutiny,'' Murkowski said in a news release.
Buck Lindekugel, conservation director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, disagreed.
``We believe that Undersecretary Lyons has full authority to resolve the appeals as he did,'' Lindekugel said.
Jack Phelps, director of the Alaska Forest Association in Ketchikan, said Lyons did not have the authority to make such changes in the Tongass plan.
``The laws and regulations are clear,'' said Phelps. ``If you're going to amend the plan, you have to go through a public process.''