U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck announced today that he proposes exempting the Tongass National Forest from a ban on road construction in currently roadless areas of federally managed forests.
Citing legal requirements to meet market demand for timber, as well as a lengthy land-management process that recently was concluded for the Tongass, Dombeck said the time isn't ripe for halting road construction in the 16.6-million acre forest, although he didn't rule it out eventually.
That exemption was immediately denounced by environmentalists, nationally and in Alaska. In Juneau, Buck Lindekugel of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said it ``rips a gaping hole in the plan.''
Dombeck, in a news teleconference from Phoenix, said emerging social values in a prosperous America call for preserving 43 million acres of the 54 million acres currently inventoried as roadless nationally.
``This is really about future generations,'' he said. ``What will people be saying 20 and 50 years from now about what happened on our watch?''
But Dombeck cited the Tongass Timber Reform Act, which requires the Forest Service to seek to meet market demand for timber, as one reason for not applying the policy to the Southeast Alaska forest's 8.5 million acres of roadless areas.
Also, compilation of the 10-year Tongass Land Management Plan, released in 1997 and revised last year, was an arduous process that should be given a chance to play out, Dombeck said. The plan, ``highly protective'' of the forest already, is due to be reviewed in 2004, and that's a good time to review roadbuilding policy in light of further transition in the regional timber industry, he said.
Forest Service officials, however, said the No. 1 comment they received during the ``scoping'' phase of the rulemaking process for the roadless policy was for including the Tongass.
``We'd been hoping that common sense and sound science would win out over politics,'' Lindekugel said. ``(But) it's obviously influenced by the Alaska congressional delegation and big timber.''
The Forest Service probably fears budget cuts if it angers Alaska's veteran and well-positioned group of Republicans in Washington, D.C., he said.
Officials of the Ketchikan-based Alaska Forest Association were not immediately available for comment.
About 500 miles of new roads are planned in roadless areas in the Tongass over the next five years.
But Regional Forester Rick Cables emphasized that the 16.6-million-acre Tongass is now 90 percent roadless. In addition to about 8.5 million acres that simply don't have roads currently, another 6.6 million acres have been designated as wilderness or national monument and are officially protected from roadbuilding, he said.
``I think the point to the public is, this is a draft,'' Cables said. ``We want to hear from the public.''
Informational and public comment meetings have been scheduled in 10 Southeast communities.
In Juneau, an informational meeting will be held 7-10 p.m. May 24 in Centennial Hall, and the public can comment during a meeting 5-10 p.m. June 19 in the ANB Hall.
The entire meeting schedule and other information about the roadless plan are available on the Internet at www.roadless.fs.fed.us. Copies of the proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement are available from Rocky Mountain Research Stations, Publication Distribution, 240 West Prospect Road, Fort Collins., Colo., 80526-2098.
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