ANCHORAGE - Greenpeace activists chained themselves to bulldozers and set up roadblocks near timber operations in the Tongass National Forest on Tuesday to protest a plan they said would weaken logging restrictions across the country.
"Our national forests are our natural heritage and should be protected for future generations," said Jeremy Paster, one of 19 activists who participated in the protest south of Petersburg.
Forest Service officials said they were assessing the gathering and had not made any moves to stop it.
"People have the right to assemble peacefully. They have the right to camp out," said Patty Grantham, a Tongass district ranger.
"The rub comes when folks express themselves in a way that precludes use of public lands - in this case, the road contractor and the timber operator," Grantham said.
Juneau grassroots organizer Aurah Landau said, "We didn't know this was coming, but we're not all that surprised that Greenpeace chose Finger Point" for the protest.
Landau, of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said the Forest Service spent $680,000 to build a three-mile road at Finger Point to "entice a buyer to the (timber) sale that failed twice to sell. Pre-roading there, and elsewhere, is an outrageous use of public resources," Landau said.
Grantham responded, "I think the Forest Service would clearly prefer to have roads built at the expense of our timber purchasers. But as a result of our unique situation in the Tongass from appeals, litigation and some market conditions, the few community-based, family-owned timber mills and processors we have left are facing some tough markets right now."
Greenpeace activists staged the blockade in opposition to a recent Bush administration proposal to let governors decide whether to seek protection of roadless national forest land. Supporters call the new policy a sensible way to protect the backcountry while giving states greater say.
The proposal, announced last month, would replace Clinton-era rules that protected 58.5 million of the 191 million acres of national forest. More than 14 million acres in Alaska, more than 2 million acres in Washington state and nearly 2 million acres in Oregon would be affected.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, whose department includes the U.S. Forest Service, will decide on the plan after a public comment period.
Two logging plans were approved in Northwest roadless areas earlier in July, including a 665-acre swath of the Tongass. The other would affect 19,465 acres in Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest. Federal officials plan to approve another 1,800-acre harvest in the Tongass this month.