About 300,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest formerly closed to timber harvest could be available for logging under a settlement between the U.S. Forest Service and the state of Alaska. Conservationists are decrying the move.
Monday's out-of-court settlement resolves a 2001 state lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the U.S. Forest Service. The state sought to halt implementation of the roadless rule in the Tongass and Chugach national forests. The Clinton administration-era rule prohibits timber harvesting and road-building within about 58 million acres of the 192-million-acre national forest system. About 9.6 million acres of Southeast Alaska's 16.8-million-acre Tongass have been designated roadless.
The state argued application of the roadless rule to Alaska national forests violates the "no more" clause of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which divided conservation and development lands and stipulated no more land would be set aside for conservation.
The settlement calls for a proposed temporary regulation to exempt the Tongass from the roadless rule, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said Monday from Washington, D.C.
The agency will take public comment on the proposal, and will decide whether to amend the roadless rule by the end of June, Rey said. The agency also will take public comments on how to treat the Chugach in Southcentral Alaska.
"What we think we've done is settled the lawsuit that would have dragged on needlessly, in a way that strikes a pretty good balance to protecting 95 percent of the roadless areas in Alaska's national forests, but still is responsive enough to the state so that they found it satisfactory," Rey said.
But Aurah Landau, spokeswoman for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, called the government's assertion that 95 percent of the Tongass will be protected "disingenuous."
"They say 95 percent of the Tongass will remain roadless. The reason it's going to remain roadless is because there's no trees there," Landau said.
According to the Forest Service, about 5 million acres of the Tongass consist of old-growth commercial-sized trees, while another 5 million acres are old-growth trees not suitable for logging. The remaining 7 million acres are rocks, ice, lakes and other unforested areas.
Rey said even if the temporary regulation is approved, not all of the 300,000 acres released from the roadless rule would be commercial-sized old-growth trees.
"This is regrettably one of those issues where 95 percent of the loaf isn't going to be enough for some folks," he said.
Alaska's congressional delegation and Gov. Frank Murkowski said the roadless rule never should have been applied to Alaska. And Murkowski said the settlement isn't sufficient to revitalize the timber industry.
"Ninety-six percent of the Tongass is still unavailable for timber harvest. But this action gives hope to the hearty Southeast Alaska folks who constitute the timber industry that has survived," Murkowski said.
Rey said the agency expects to finalize the Tongass rule in September, and then make a proposal on how to treat the Chugach.