The U.S. House of Representatives was poised Thursday to pass an Interior appropriations bill that would prohibit any money for new timber roads in the Tongass National Forest.
The bill was amended Wednesday by Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, making the road funding off-limits.
Opponents of the measure said the amended version of the bill will be the final nail in the coffin for Alaska's struggling timber industry. The proposal still awaits approval by the U.S. Senate and President George Bush.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a press release that she would work to reverse the amendment in the Senate.
"Without some road funding, the industry will die, putting another 1,000 Alaskans and their families out of work and killing an industry that already is just a shadow of its former self," Murkowski said.
In 2003, the timber industry harvested about 50 million board feet of timber from the 17-million-acre rain forest. About 30,000 board feet of timber represents approximately 1 acre of forest.
Dennis Neill, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman, said the Forest Service is trying to sell about 150 million board feet annually.
At the height of Southeast's timber days in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the Forest Service harvested up to 500 million board feet of timber a year, Neill said.
Opponents of the timber industry applauded the House amendment, which passed 222-205.
"I think it's a real strong indication that Americans and Congress want to see some reform in Tongass management," said Aurah Landau, of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
She said in 2002, the Forest Service spent more than $36 million in federal funding, but private timber corporations paid the federal government $1.2 million for logging rights to cut hundreds of acres of old-growth trees.
"This is not an environmental vote. It's a fiscal vote," Landau said.
Neill said the annual appropriations bill typically sends the state's timber program about $36 million. About $7 million of that would be used on road construction and maintenance.
Charley Streuli, of the U.S. Forest Service, said about 85 percent of the $7 million is used for road maintenance and reconstruction. The remaining 15 percent is used for new road construction.
Streuli said the Forest Service plans to build about 15.6 miles of road in the Tongass this year in eight separate areas. It plans to build another 28 miles of road in 2005 in 10 different areas.
"We're not exactly the Interstate Highway Commission," Neill said. "We're not building hundreds and hundreds of miles every year."
Streuli said forest service roads made of rock fill typically cost about $150,000 per mile.
"It would have a severe impact on local communities throughout Southeast," Streuli said. "My feeling is that it hurts a lot of Alaskans and Alaskan jobs. There's a lot of people that make their living off those jobs, and they're high-wage jobs."
Landau argued that the timber industry provides less than 1 percent of the region's employment, despite large federal subsidies.
She said heavy funding for the timber industry precludes federal money from going to other industries, such as fishing and tourism.