The 1979 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) designated vast regions of the Tongass National Forest as roadless, national monuments and wilderness. These millions of acres, including the largest timber stands (Admiralty Island) and the most spectacular scenery (Misty Fiords), were selected because of their unique values.
In fact, ANILCA preserved about one-third of the commercial timberlands in perpetuity. An additional one-third of the commercial timber was protected from development under the 1980 Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP).
Only one-third of the commercial timber on the Tongass has been scheduled for multiple-use management, including timber harvest, over a 100-year period. Following the completion of TLMP, the timber industry was told there would be sufficient timber sales offered from these lands to sustain the industry at the historic level of 450 million board feet annually.
However, in 1990, Congress legislated more land set-asides. Areas near small communities that were "overlooked" during the ANILCA process were carefully selected, primarily for their high fish and wildlife-habitat values. Again, the timber industry was told the land set-asides would not reduce the volume of timber available, and no jobs would be lost.
In 1997, the TLMP was revised and again, large stands of the highest volume timber were administratively set aside. The timberland available for harvest has now been reduced from 1.75 million acres in 1980 to 676,000 acres today. Of the 676,000 acres, about 300,000 are still without roads (roadless). These acres represent about 5 percent of the old-growth, commercial timber on the Tongass. These acres also represent the least valuable timberlands for wilderness, monuments, roadless areas or fish and wildlife habitat. On three separate occasions, these lands have been passed over in favor of protecting other lands in the forest.
Regardless of these facts, the 2000 roadless rule put most of these timberlands designated for logging off-limits to development.
In addition to breaking promises and eliminating jobs in dependent communities, the nationwide, one-fits-all role causes unintended harm in Alaska. For instance, two and a half years ago, some 6,000 acres of national forest timber blew down near Yakutat. All of this timber is within the area designated for harvest by the 1997 TLMP, but only 1,200 acres is close to existing roads. The remaining 4,800 acres have been off-limits to salvage logging because of the roadless rule.
The 1,200 acres near the roads are scheduled for harvest soon, and that will allow second-growth timber stands to grow quickly. However, the rest of the acreage will not be cleaned up and the regrowth will be delayed while the blown-down timber rots away. Even worse, the 4,800 acres of blown-down timber has become a breeding ground for insect infestations that will spread to the adjacent standing timber. The roadless rule prevents the Forest Service from managing their lands in a common sense, case-specific manner.
The pending Alaska exemption to the roadless rule makes sense; the Tongass is a national forest, not a national park. The forest's fish and wildlife habitat is well protected, there are plenty of remote recreational areas and large tracks of old-growth timber are permanently protected. Meanwhile, the economies of most Southeast Alaska communities are depressed. Some timberlands must remain available for multiple-use management, including timber harvest. We need the employment that timber and other industries can provide.
Timber harvesting often serves as the center of debate regarding our national forests; however, it is important to understand the potential impacts of the roadless rule extend for beyond that activity alone. For instance, there is no timber harvest planned on the Chugach, yet there are other uses that would be impacted or prohibited if the Chugach were not exempt from the roadless rule, including access to private lands and existing development rights.
We support the Alaska exemption for both the Tongass and the Chugach because it makes sense and restores a portion of the balance struck by ANILCA.
Owen J. Graham is executive director of the Ketchikan-based Alaska Forest Association.