USFS rejects Chugach wilderness appeal

Posted: Wednesday, June 30, 2004

ANCHORAGE - The U.S. Forest Service denied appeals from a coalition of groups unhappy with the plan for Alaska's Chugach National Forest, the country's second-largest national forest.

The coalition appealed the 2002 Chugach land management plan, which is a blueprint on how the federal agency administers the 5.5 million-acre forest that flanks Anchorage.

They challenged the plan, which guides management for roughly the next 15 years, on a number of fronts. Among their gripes were that the plan allows snowmachines and helicopters in too many areas of the forest and does not adequately protect Kenai Peninsula brown bears.

A Forest Service appeals officer in Washington, D.C., rejected most of the claims. In her written decision last week, reviewing officer Gloria Manning did order the agency to provide more information on rivers that could be classified as wild and scenic.

Based on the 30,000 or so comments sent to the Forest Service, most people wanted to see more areas set aside for conservation, said Bobbie Jo Skibo, program coordinator for Alaska Center for the Environment.

"I'm upset," Skibo said. "A lot of people put their blood, sweat and tears into the public process, and they've been ignored."

But Tadd Owens, head of the Resource Development Council, said while his organization didn't get everything it wanted, the Forest Service did a good job of listening and struck a compromise he can live with.

"The Forest Service worked their tails off. They'll never make everybody happy," he said. "They lived up to their promise to preserve the forest's wild character. Ten years from now, people aren't going to see much difference on the forest."

Acting Chugach Forest supervisor Chuck Frey said the agency tried to strike a balance between people who want more of the forest off-limits to development and those who advocate fewer restrictions.

"There's just such strong feelings on both sides," Frey said.

He said the Forest Service made extraordinary efforts to include the public in the planning process. For example, officials, for the first time, invited the public to attend interdisciplinary team meetings, where experts in biology, forestry, engineering and other sciences debated the issues related to Chugach management.

The Chugach plan recommends that Congress designate a 1.4 million-acre tract in western Prince William Sound as wilderness, where most development is banned. It takes a vote of Congress to create wilderness, and the Chugach plan marked the first time in more than a decade that the Forest Service had made such a recommendation.

Environmentalists wanted more set aside as wilderness. In particular, they wanted wilderness status for the Copper River Delta, a prospect that frightened commercial fishing interests.

Pro-development organizations, such as the Resource Development Council and the Alaska Miners Association, objected to more wilderness.

"I think the Forest Service already has far exceeded its bounds" by designating certain segments of rivers as wild, scenic or recreational, said Steve Borell, executive director of the miners group.

Under the 2002 plan, 82 additional miles of river will be managed as such, Frey said.

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