For Kay Greenough, the velvet curtains inside Centennial Hall are beginning to look all too familiar.
A Juneau resident since 1965, she has attended many U.S. Forest Service hearings over the years about the Tongass National Forest. Last month, the question centered on whether certain areas should be recommended for wilderness designation.
"This is like a bad dream in a lot of ways. Some day I won't have to be in this room, looking at these green curtains," she said. "It's very disheartening to have to come back and say, 'I think Berners Bay is important.' "
It is the type of comment that has echoed throughout Southeast Alaska over the past few weeks during a series of Forest Service hearings about Tongass wilderness. A majority of speakers have asked for more protection, even in places such as Ketchikan and Sitka, former pulp mill communities with a history of support for the timber industry. The timber industry and Alaska's congressional delegation oppose new wilderness.
The hearings stem from a court-ordered draft supplemental environmental impact statement that looks at 115 roadless areas in Southeast Alaska for possible wilderness designation. The draft study recommends no new wilderness areas for the Tongass, and a final document should be finished by the end of the year. The ultimate decision rests with Congress.
" 'No action' is not the final answer yet," Forest Service project team leader Larry Lunde said Friday. "There's a reasonable chance we'll have some recommendations (for wilderness). What and where I don't know."
Wilderness is a term of art for the Forest Service, which defines it as "undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation." Logging, road building and new mining claims are generally prohibited on wilderness lands.
The Tongass National Forest now has 19 congressionally-designated wilderness areas, encompassing 5.8 million acres, that were set aside by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 and the Tongass Timber Reform Act in 1990.
The three-volume Forest Service study evaluates the 115 areas for wilderness based on public input, congressional interest, the effects of wilderness designation and what the area is adjacent to, among other factors.
In addition, each spot is given a number based on a wilderness rating system used nationwide. The 28-point system evaluates an area based on how it looks to the causal forest visitor, previous development, and activities and opportunities for solitude and low-impact recreation, Lunde said.
"The lowest rating out of the 115 (areas studied) was 11," he said. "A lot of areas are in the 20s and a lot are in the high 20s. ... People would think they died and went to heaven (if they had) our average roadless area down south."
The area that received the highest score, the Cone Roadless Area near Wrangell, is surrounded by two other roadless areas, the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness and the Canadian border.
"There's very little development on the Canada side. It's one that hardly anyone goes to," Lunde said. "It's a lot of rock and ice and is really isolated. It makes perfect wilderness."
Meanwhile, much of the public's attention has focused on places such as Berners Bay, St. James Bay and Port Houghton near Juneau; the Cleveland Peninsula near Ketchikan; Ushk Bay and Poison Cove near Sitka; and Honker Divide on Prince of Wales Island.
That list is made up of places where people are worried about timber harvests and other development, said Mark Rorick of the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club. Many of the places received high wilderness ratings.
"Wilderness means different things to different people," he said. "To me, it means protecting existing uses such as hunting, fishing and recreation. It's not a lock-out kind of designation. For the majority of people testifying for more protection ... what we're really asking is that roadless areas just be protected for logging and road building primarily."
Meanwhile, Alaska's congressional delegation opposes more wilderness for the Tongass, according to a letter to the Forest Service last month. Wilderness designation should be "exclusive province" of Congress, not the Forest Service, Republican Sens. Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young wrote.
"We have dropped from approximately 3,400 timber jobs in 1990 to approximately 700 today," the letter said. "We cannot afford to further erode the timber base."
For the timber industry's Alaska Forest Association, the issue is one of balance between recreation, fish, wilderness and jobs, Executive Director Owen Graham said.
"The timber industry is so small and fragile, we're trying to maintain a balance," he said. "It's not a big percentage of (land) for development opposed to nondevelopment. ... There needs to be a balance between uses of the forest. It can't all be locked up for wilderness."
Graham doesn't make much of being outnumbered in hearings this summer. His group has tried to make thorough comments that are backed up with sound science, he said.
"It's only of concern to me if the Forest Service gets weak-kneed and welshes on what they told us earlier: That they aren't going to put significance on the number of comments. That they're going to look at issues, community impacts and science. ... We've reminded the Forest Service this isn't going to be a numbers game."
Graham emphasizes that even if timber harvests won't be affected by new wilderness, a designation could block new roads for community access. More wilderness also could make potential timber industry investors wary about setting up in Southeast, he added.
Juneau resident Greenough, who has watched opinions about the Tongass shift in favor of protection since the 1970s, said she's not surprised by the pro-wilderness sentiment expressed this summer. Such requests and environmental lawsuits will continue, she said.
Public comment on the draft wilderness plan closes Aug. 17. Project leader Lunde said the agency hopes to receive more detailed information from the public about specific areas.
"It's important so we know what's going on in areas to give it our best shot on the recommendations," he said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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