When the 9th Circuit Court, on Aug. 5, overturned the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP), it ruled against the citizens of Alaska. This decision raises grave concerns over the future economic health of communities in Southeast. But it also raises other issues, more national in scope. Specifically, the court's decision illustrates the need, increasingly recognized by Congress, that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed into law in 1970, is failing in its purpose. Instead of narrowly requiring careful analysis of the environmental effects of major federal actions as it was intended to do, it has become the tool of choice for radical anti-development groups to slow, and often stop, Federal actions that they dislike.
In the case of the Tongass, the original Forest Plan was issued in 1979. Under federal law, a revision was required in the 10-15 year timeframe. That process began in 1987. It was not completed until 2003, even though the plan itself and its accompanying environmental impact statement were issued by the Forest Service in 1997. This unacceptably long time, and its associated multi-million dollar price tag, illustrated the impracticality of NEPA compliance.
Anyone willing to bring suit against an agency over NEPA compliance can too easily "prove" to a court's satisfaction that the agency did something wrong in its effort to comply with the law. The court then sends the agency back to do more work, the agency gets sued again and the cycle continues. Meanwhile, costs mount as the agency engages in endless planning. More significantly, businesses and communities who depend on the finality of the agency's action suffer financial and social harm.
So, when the Forest Service finally released its "final" Tongass plan in the late 1990s, Alaska's elected public officials, on both sides of the aisle, agreed that planning had consumed enough time and enough money. Despite the fact that many of us believed the plan unfairly limited production of timber commodities from the Tongass, most of us believed it was time to quit planning and manage the forest. Environmental groups, on the other hand, with access to millions of dollars provided by large foundations outside Alaska, would rather see the planning continue.
Lawsuits by these groups have frustrated the Forest Service's best efforts to supply timber to Alaska's few remaining sawmills. These extremists even convinced a court to halt the harvest of dead and down timber in the northern part of the Tongass earlier this year. Now, thanks to this 9th Circuit ruling, we will have to endure yet another cycle of planning, while forest products businesses in our already crippled timber-dependent communities lay off their last remaining employees.
With strong support in Congress, Alaska's congressional delegation tried to prevent this madness. In the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Act, Congress approved section 335 which was intended to end Tongass planning by protecting the 1997 plan and its court-ordered supplemental wilderness review. We took this action, not because we approved of the maximum harvest levels allowed by the plan, but because it was time to move on. In its Aug. 5 decision, the court argued its way around compliance with congressional instructions by manufacturing a loophole in section 335.
House Resources Committee chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) recently appointed a task force on improving NEPA. It is chaired by Rep. Cathy McMorris of Washington State and is tasked with investigating problems with NEPA and recommending changes. We hope they will look at Alaska's experience and repair this broken law. Meanwhile, my administration will continue to do what it can to assist Southeast communities to rebuild their damaged economies and put people back to work.
Murkowski is governor of Alaska.