The U.S. Senate rejected a bi-partisan measure Wednesday that would have stopped the flow of taxpayer money to build new roads in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.
The amendment, which was included in an appropriations bill for the Interior Department, was sponsored by Republican Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. The senators said it would prevent up to $17.3 million in taxpayer subsidies for new road construction in the nation's largest national forest.
A similar amendment passed the House last year, but didn't get a vote by the Senate. This amendment was defeated 39-59.
"This timber program is losing money - an estimated $48 million in the last fiscal year. It makes no sense to ask the taxpayers of this country to funnel millions more to such an expensive endeavor," Sununu said in a statement when he introduced the amendment Monday.
Sununu, a fiscal conservative, maintains that private industry and not taxpayers should pay for logging roads.
"I am not opposed to a reasonable timber program in the national forest, nor am I opposed to the use of private funds to build logging roads. But, a federal subsidy of this magnitude cannot be justified," he said.
Bingaman pointed out that the amendment would not interfere with current logging contracts in the Tongass. He said it would "end a massive taxpayer subsidy that will create a long legacy of environmental damage and taxpayer liabilities for many decades to come."
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a fellow Republican, took to the Senate floor Wednesday to beat back the amendment.
"I challenge anyone to show that it will save a dime, not one dime!" Stevens said.
The amendment only prevented the funds from being spent in Alaska, Stevens said, and predicted that the money would be spent by the Forest Service elsewhere.
Stevens said only $3.6 million was actually spent on new roads in the nearly 17-million-acre national forest last year, with the rest being used to study and maintain existing roads.
"Now this is not a case of saving money," Stevens said of the amendment. "As a matter of fact the Forest Service planning, design and construction of timber roads is for the protection of wildlife, the fish and the scenic recreation areas for residents and visitors."
That's not what occurs, said Buck Lindekugel, attorney for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
These roads "are not meeting the needs of the timber operators or the other users of the forest who depend on it for their livelihoods," Lindekugel said.
The Forest Service continues to offer pre-roaded timber sales that still aren't economical, he said. "They are operating in the last century," he said.
"We can debate how much (money) they lost in 2004 ... but the point is they lost a bucket load of money. This is money that could have been used for maintaining existing roads, managing recreation permits or designing a timber program that meets this timber industry's needs," Lindekugel said.
The Forest Service spends far more annually than a few million dollars on Tongass roads, said Laurie Cooper, manager of the Alaska Rainforest Campaign in Washington, D.C.
"This amendment was certainly a fiscal amendment," she said. "It is a shame the taxpayer will continue to have to pay tens of millions annually on this losing timber program."
Brian Moore, legislative director with the Alaska Wilderness League in Washington, D.C., said the fiscal argument makes sense. The Forest Service got back only $800,000 on the more than $48 million spent in 2004 to subsidize Tongass logging, he said.
"It is not in the public's best interest for the American public to be throwing away their money," Moore said. "They are stealing my money and our money and putting it in the pockets of their buddies in the timber industry, and it is wrong."
A call to the Alaska Forest Association industry group was not immediately returned.
Tongass spokesman Dennis Neill said the Forest Service spent between $4 million and $5 million on Tongass logging roads last year, and of that $1.8 million was spent to construct seven miles of new roads.
"It is very expensive to build new roads here," he said.
Of the $48 million, a little less than half or $22.5 million was spent on the Tongass timber program, he said. The program returned $1.9 million to the government, Neill said.
He said fewer than 700,000 acres in the Tongass has been designated for commercial timber production. About half of that already has logging roads and the plan is to put roads in the rest, Neill said.
"We are trying to put the basic infrastructure in place so we can have a sustainable timber program over the next 100 years in this small portion of the forest," he said.
Empire staff writer Elizabeth Bluemink contributed to this report.