Businesses fight paving roads in Tongass forest

Spending critics say Congress should drop road funding because timber sales lose money

Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Seventy-nine Panhandle tourism-dependent businesses are petitioning Congress this week to stop paving roads to Tongass National Forest timber sales with federal tax money.

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Southeast Alaska's visitor industry is jeopardized by both Tongass clearcuts and "the roads that come with it," said Mark Kaelke, who owns Juneau's Bear Creek Outfitters, on Monday.

Kaelke and the other business owners are joining with two Outside legislators, national taxpayer groups and pro-hunting and fishing organizations in support of an amendment to block further spending roads to access timber harvests. The amendment could be tacked onto an Interior Department spending bill this week.

The groups claim Congress should drop its support of the road spending because, each year, the Tongass loses millions of dollars on its timber sales.

Tongass officials don't dispute the subsidy, but they say targeting the timber program is unfair because the Tongass also subsidizes its recreation program. "We put a lot of money into bear-viewing platforms that doesn't come back to the Treasury," Tongass spokesman Dennis Neill said.

Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., and Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio - both with a reputation for criticizing wasteful government spending - are spearheading the Tongass timber amendment this week. It may come up for a vote in the House on Wednesday or Thursday.

It's the congressmen's third attempt. An almost identical amendment narrowly passed the House in 2004 but wasn't picked up in a Senate version of the bill. A revised amendment in 2005 was blocked on procedural grounds by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-California.

"I look at this as an investor," Andrews said Monday during a news conference.

Andrews said he thinks the amendment has a good chance of avoiding a procedural blockade this year and may grab interest from fiscal conservatives alarmed about increased deficit spending.

The federal government is now spending $100 for every $75 it receives, Andrews said. "We need to look for places to spend less. Here's one," he said.

Environmental groups claim the Tongass timber program netted about $500,000 in timber revenue in 2005 while spending $48.5 million on the overall timber program. The analysis was performed by a former Tongass National Forest economist.

"That's not a rate of return that we can easily support," Andrews said Monday.

Tongass officials claim the $48.5 million does not match their records. "We spent $24 million on the timber program" in 2005, Neill said.

"They aren't telling the whole story," responded Buck Lindekugel, with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, based in Juneau.

Lindekugel said the $24 million figure leaves out Tongass timber funding obligated but not spent in 2005, as well as costs for administrative overhead and repairing roads originally built to access timber, Lindekugel said.

Tongass officials hope to narrow the gap between spending on the forest's timber program and the revenue received from timber sales, Neill said.

It's possible that the fiscal gap will narrow or that timber sales will become profitable in the future, Neill said.

The Forest Service hasn't come out with a position on the amendment yet, but it opposed previous versions, Neill said.

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