My Turn: Misconceptions about the Roadless Rule

Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2003

As the comment period draws to a close, misconceptions of the Roadless Rule's effect on our regional economy abound. Empire Publisher Don Smith's recent Roadless Rule editorial is inaccurate and markedly misleading about the effects of the rule on the region's forest uses. An honest read of the Roadless Rule, as published in the Federal Register, shows that it specifically allows:

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• The state's or private landowner's right of access to their land;

• Logging and clearing of utility transmission line corridors using standard helicopter clearing and construction techniques;

• Construction of federally funded roads, such as the proposed Juneau-Skagway road,

• Access to and use of off-highway vehicle (ATV) trails;

• Access for exploration and development of mines; and

• Construction of roads needed for public safety.

The Roadless Rule is a forest management tool that simply limits construction of new logging roads and commercial logging in areas of the Tongass larger than 5,000 acres and that do not have roads. The rule provides protection from clearcut logging for many Tongass watersheds important to Juneau residents - Taku Harbor, Upper Tenakee Inlet and St. James Bay for example. Many other areas important for the recreational, subsistence and commercial activities crucial to the quality of life in all our Southeast communities also are protected by the rule.

Most notably, the sound science is there to support the on-going need to protect the fish, wildlife and water resources of the Tongass from damage done by poorly maintained logging roads and clearcut logging. Scientists have spoken about the importance of keeping habitat in roadless areas for eagles, salmon, bears and wolves. These animals cannot live on the millions of acres of rock and ice on the Tongass. They require the same low-elevation, old growth that is targeted for logging.

Smith tells us 95 percent of the Tongass will never be logged, and only 300,000 acres will be affected. He doesn't tell us that is the most valuable forest slated for logging in the next 10 years. Just like we can't live without a healthy heart, these lands are the biological heart of our forest. Smith also forgets to say that only 4 percent of the Tongass ever contained the valuable stands of low-elevation, enormous old-growth spruce, hemlock and cedar. Already 70 percent of these rare stands have been logged.

The fate of the timber industry on the Tongass is far more closely linked to competition in the world timber markets than to efforts to put limits on clearcutting the remaining undisturbed watersheds. Demand for Tongass trees has fallen dramatically because of permanent and fundamental changes in the global market. At the same time, the timber industry is dealing with the fact it has logged the best and the cheapest trees to feed the pulp mills. Note that the industry laments a lack of a sustained, economical flow of logs - not a lack of trees.

Smith was right in that the Tongass is a working forest, and logging is a rightful part of that mix. Even with the Roadless Rule, the timber industry has over 5 billion board feet of old-growth from the existing 5,000 miles of logging roads on the Tongass. Combined with future logging of second-growth, this volume would sustain the industry beyond the next 50 years.

When the pulp mills closed, several Southeast communities lost jobs. Some, like Sitka, are doing well, while others continue to struggle. These mills had closed by 1997, years before the Roadless Rule came about. Smith may want to scapegoat the Roadless Rule for timber job losses, but it's important to be honest about causes so we can find solutions. If Smith really wanted to support local jobs he would endorse true multiple use of the Tongass and call for investing in all jobs, especially in growing sectors of the economy.

Smith reports that, before any public comment period began, the White House called Sen. Stevens saying the Tongass was out of the Roadless Rule. The Tongass is a national forest and belongs to Alaskans and all Americans, not just powerful politicians. It is our duty as forest residents to ensure that decisions are made to benefit all, not only the timber industry. Supporting the Roadless Rule is as much about who is in charge as about how the forest is used. Postmark your comments to the Forest Service by midnight tonight.

As community organizer with Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Aurah Landau spends much of her time in Ketchikan and on Prince of Wales.

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