No new areas of the Tongass National Forest would be designated as wilderness based on a recommendation in a draft environmental impact statement released by the U.S. Forest Service today. But officials say the determination isn't final.
"This is very much just a starting point. We haven't closed the door to the potential of new wilderness recommendations," Forest Service spokesman Dennis Neill said. "It's certainly within the range of alternatives to make those kind of recommendations."
In a three-volume, court-ordered analysis of possible new Tongass wilderness, the Forest Service recommends no action, in effect using a 1997 forest plan revision that was the result of "a significant collaborative effort," according to the draft. It doesn't make sense to walk away from the previous work, Forest Service project team leader Larry Lunde said.
"We need to let people come up to speed with the new information, work together and see if there's another balance that works," he said.
The idea of protecting undeveloped portions of the Tongass has been the subject of court battles and public hearings in recent years. Wilderness areas have legislative, permanent protection against road building, logging and other development.
The draft supplemental impact statement comes in response to a March 2001 order from U.S. District Judge James Singleton. His ruling said the Forest Service violated federal law by not considering some areas as eligible for wilderness designation in the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan.
In response, the Forest Service began work on a supplemental environmental impact statement last year, evaluating 115 inventoried roadless areas for additional protection.
The draft study looks at eight possible recommendations, ranging from 723,000 to 9.5 million new acres of wilderness.
Deirdre McDonnell, an attorney for environmental law firm Earthjustice in Juneau, said she was surprised the preferred alternative recommends no new wilderness.
"From our perspective, we certainly hope that they're open to changing their minds when they see the public comments," she said. "I do think it's significant in that it's one of the first tests of the new administration in terms of protecting wilderness."
Representatives from the Alaska Forest Association couldn't be reached for comment by the Empire's midday deadline.
Because only Congress can designate wilderness, areas selected in the proposal would be managed as "recommended wilderness" until congressional action occurs.
Public hearings on the proposal are scheduled throughout Southeast Alaska in the weeks ahead, including a June 18 hearing in Juneau. The public comment deadline is Aug. 17. More information is available at www.tongass-seis.net.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.