My Turn: Should taxpayers fund this?

Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2003

On June 10, in Washington, D.C., National Public Radio's Bob Edwards introduced NPR reporter Elizabeth Arnold to report on the Bush administration's change in the national forest roadless rule as it pertains to Alaska. She questioned a statement issued by Mark Rey, who Arnold identified as agriculture secretary.

EDWARDS: In Alaska, didn't Rey say that 95 percent of the forest will still remain roadless there?

ARNOLD: Well, he did, Bob. He was talking about the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. But to put that in context, you need to know that two-thirds of the Tongass is actually rock and ice; it's basically glacier. So some 30-plus timber sales that are already in the works there represent a pretty good portion of what's left of that forest.

That is exactly what she said. And its matches the description of the Tongass on the Web site of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, which is about as unbiased as the Sierra Club's legal arm, Earthjustice, which asks on its Web site for money "to double our efforts to stop the Bush administration."

A few days after NPR's story, The Associated Press reported that Alaska's Congressman, Don Young, was given the Golden Fleece award by Taxpayers for Common Sense for promoting a bridge from Ketchikan to its airport on Gravina Island. The organization claimed it conducted an 18-month study of the project, which takes it back to when Earthjustice mentioned Gravina in a court suit filed against the Forest Service. The critical eight-page critique of the bridge project offered by Taxpayers for Common Sense probably was the brief filed by Earthjustice blocking the 1997 land management plan until a supplemental environmental impact statement was concluded studying more areas for wilderness. The Forest Service completed it in February with no more wilderness proposed.

On June 20, the Seattle Times printed an editorial column by staffer Lance Dickie. He opposed exempting the Tongass from the Clinton roadless rule and wants the roadless rule codified (a law passed) by Congress. He admits he got his information from SEACC, which is obvious. He wrote of the Tongass "the landscape is rock and ice and scrub forest."

Even those who write opinion pieces should base their opinion on facts, not fantasy, if it is to be effective. To assist NPR let us start at the top. The secretary of agriculture is Ann M. Veneman. She has held the post for two years. Mark Rey is an undersecretary in charge of the Forest Service.

To get an accurate description of the Tongass we go to a Forest Service Web site, After all, FS foresters survey and classify the land for management plans required by the National Forest Management Act of 1976. Between that act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, Clinton's roadless rule conflicted with existing laws affecting the Tongass.

The Tongass covers 16.8 million acres with 9.4 million of those acres old-growth forests. That leaves 44 percent for Ms. Arnold's rock, ice and glacier. Of those 9.4 million forest acres, 5 million contain commercial-size trees. Only 400,000 acres, or 7 percent, of the total commercial-size trees have been harvested since the timber industry established its first pulp mill in 1954. Since the forest reserve was set aside in 1902, fewer than 500,000 acres have been harvested. Those 30 timber sales Ms. Arnold says will harvest "a pretty good portion of what's left of that forest" must be really something, considering that it took hundreds of sales over 100 years to harvest less than 10 percent of existing commercial timber!

Nearly 90 percent (4.5 million acres) of the 5 million acres of commercial-size old-growth is protected under the current forest plan. And under the plan, only 500,000, or approximately 10 percent, of the remaining commercial-sized old-growth could be harvested over the next 120 years. So by 2120, 83 percent of the commercial-size old-growth identified in 1954, will remain, and remain roadless. And by 2120 some of the land harvested 1902-2002 will have a healthy second growth ready for logging or saving as additional old-growth.

There is no excuse for sloppy reporting in this day of the Internet, unless it is intentional for political reasons, and that is not a good excuse. The state puts almost $4 million a year into public broadcasting. We are unsure of the federal contribution. Aren't taxpayers entitled to accurate, politically unbiased reporting for their dollars?

Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.

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