My Turn: Isn't a third of Tongass in wilderness enough?

Posted: Sunday, July 07, 2002

The U.S. Forest Service staff in Alaska did an excellent job compiling forest facts while completing an supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) evaluating roadless areas in Tongass National Forest. The U.S. district court ordered the roadless review for potential wilderness designation in resolving a suit brought by environmental organization.

For the Forest Service staff it really meant considering five small areas that hadn't been considered for wilderness when they examined 110 roadless areas for wilderness while devising the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan. However, alternatives offered in the SEIS, except for the recommended no-action alternative No. 1, would go back and undo the '97 plan and add more wilderness. The worst alternative, No. 8, would create a solid block of wilderness from the Canada-Alaska border north of Yakutat to the Canada-Alaska border south of Ketchikan, shutting off land access to Southeast forever and isolating its 73,000 residents. Ridiculous.

The Tongass covers 16.8 million acres of Southeast. More than one-third, 6.6 million acres, is in wilderness, national monument or other untouchable reserves.

Most of those advocating more wilderness are frightened of chain saws. They shouldn't be. In 1954, when the timber industry came to Alaska in a big way with two pulp mills and several sawmills, there were 5.4 million acres of what was termed potential commercial timber land. After almost 50 years of logging, 92 percent, or 5 million acres of commercial forest survives. For the future: 663,000 acres, one-tenth the 6.6 million acres of wilderness, are open for logging for all time.

Actually, even adopting the recommended alternative, No. 1, based on the 1997 forest plan, puts too much of Southeast into wilderness. Putting land into an untouchable classification hinders future generations. It blocks their ability to improve access to Southeast communities. It blocks construction of a power grid to provide communities affordable power for everyday living and for economic development. The SEIS points out that additional wilderness can block road construction out of Juneau.

Isn't one-third of the Tongass in wilderness enough without killing hopes for better access for future generations?

Sen. Frank Murkowski obtained federal approval for the Southeast Alaska power grid. Except for the Swan Lake-Tyee Lake section out of Ketchikan, now under construction, the rest of the route has yet to be designated. More wilderness can kill those plans.

The SEIS identifies 148 locatable mineral resource deposits in the Tongass. Twenty-five percent of them would be untouchable even under the recommended alternative and '97 plan. Sixty-four percent would be locked away under Alternative Eight. Southeast holds, in addition to gold and silver, large deposits of strategic minerals such as uranium, tungsten and molybdenum. Some day those may be crucial to the nation's economic stability and security.

Expansion of federal untouchable reserves has the potential to restrict fishing and tourism, two of the three remaining large Southeast industries. The third industry is government. Southeast's timber industry has been seriously curtailed under the existing land plan so it is no longer a major Southeast industry.

This is where our third remaining industry, government, gets seriously hurt. With fewer year-around residents in Southeast - fishing and tourism are seasonal - Southeast residents face an avalanche of votes in November from the growing parts of the state. November is when all Alaskans vote on whether to move the Legislature out of Juneau, taking 500 jobs with it.

Actually, it is really an effort to move the capital from Juneau. Southeast residents must battle that to save their economy and keep state operating costs down. But selling the northern part of the state - hey, they would like those 500 jobs - is another thing. How many voters still in Southeast will go to the polls in November vs. the growing parts of the state?

Southeast is important to all of Alaska and the rest of the nation. As it prospers, so does the rest of the state. Southeast residents don't consume all of their products - fish, timber, scenery, minerals and probably water in the future. The state and nation will be poorer - as will be our children and grandchildren and theirs - for locking up more than one-third of Southeast in a one-use reserve - wilderness.

Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News and a former member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents.

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