Alaska environmentalists on Wednesday handed U.S. Forest Service officials more than 1,000 letters supporting an initiative that would ban road building and timber cutting in roadless portions of national forests.
About 40 people gathered inside Juneau's Federal Building for the event, one of 10 organized by conservation groups nationwide. While the roadless initiative is on hold by federal court order, the Forest Service is seeking additional comment on how roadless areas should be managed.
"Please hear our voice. We've said it before, we're saying it again and we will continue to say it. Alaskans want our wild forests protected," said Stasia Sprenger, an organizer with the Alaska Center for the Environment, as she gave Deputy Regional Forester for Natural Resources Jim Caplan a stack of letters. He said he would transmit the comments to the agency's national headquarters.
Of the 58.5 million acres covered by the rule, 9.2 million are in the Tongass National Forest and 5.4 million are in Southcentral Alaska's Chugach National Forest. Some Southeast Alaska governments and community groups also have submitted comments that favor existing local land management over new national restrictions.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has said she intends to implement the roadless initiative with amendments that
emphasize local control and decision-making. The Forest Service this summer issued a list of 10 questions to seek comment about the roadless rule and how the agency should protect communities, homes, property and forests. The comment deadline is Sept. 10.
Don Muller, manager of Old Harbor Books in Sitka, said local control has added to divisiveness and anger in his community about the Tongass. Protecting the region's forests will provide long-term economic benefit, he said.
"Local decision-making is putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop on an issue like saving wild forests," he said.
Elmer Makua, executive director of the Tongass Conservation Society, pointed to a proposed timber sale on Gravina Island near Ketchikan as a threat to subsistence resources.
"I'm here to support the roadless rule. For I know that when the decision was made, it was made for all the people," he said.
The roadless initiative has prompted heated debate in Southeast Alaska over the past two years. Owen Graham, executive director of the Ketchikan-based industry group Alaska Forest Association, said in an interview that his organization would like the Forest Service to use the Tongass Land Management Plan, approved in 1997 after a lengthy public process.
"We hope whatever they do, what's left of the timber industry can survive and go forward. My personal hope is that they'll continue to use the land management process rather than imposing some nationwide rule," Graham said.
Dick Coose, a Ketchikan Borough Assembly member and timber industry proponent, said community groups and local governments in Southeast have submitted comments objecting to the roadless rule.
"It's immaterial whether they turn in a thousand or a million comments," he said of the effort by environmental groups. "The Forest Service has no mandate to manage by popular vote."
As long as the forest is managed with science it will be there for future generations, Coose said. Community input is important, and livelihoods in Southeast Alaska depend on natural resources, he added.
"You can't show on the Tongass where there's been lasting damage to the land," he said.
The Tongass was not included in early versions of the roadless initiative, but was added into the final roadless rule in January. Pat Veesart, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society, said it's possible the Forest Service could remove Tongass protections.
"I expect what the Bush administration would like to do is implement the roadless rule in a whole bunch of national forests where it is almost irrelevant and tell the American people that 'Yes, we're listening,' " he said. "The Forest Service today was very nice and chummy, but the reality is they have not listened to the public in this process. They have not defended their own rule in court and they are moving full-speed ahead with roadless timber sales."
The Forest Service's Caplan said the agency should issue a final decision this fall on a Chugach land management plan revision and is proceeding with the Tongass Land Management Plan.
"We're just following our normal process, which for some people may be faster than they like. Other people would like to see timber supply available to their mills. It's somewhat in the eyes of the beholder," he said.
Caplan encouraged all Alaskans to submit comments about the roadless rule. He said he hasn't heard anything specific about possible changes to Tongass roadless protections as officials review the plan.
"I think the chief's office is keeping an open mind about that and I would expect them to, really," he said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.