The U.S. Forest Service plans to examine 110 roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest for wilderness protection in response to a federal court order.
U.S. District Judge James Singleton on March 30 said the agency failed to evaluate some roadless areas as eligible for wilderness protections in the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan. At that time, he also issued a temporary injunction that resulted in a logging shutdown on the Tongass for almost two months. The issue is still in court.
The Forest Service plans to start work on a supplemental environmental impact statement this month to address wilderness protections, while continuing to analyze areas for possible timber sales, Tongass Forest Supervisor Tom Puchlerz said.
The supplement will be released for a 90-day public comment period in early 2002.
"This is not a revision of the forest plan. It's not opening up every issue on the Tongass that everyone has an issue with," agency spokesman Dennis Neill said. "It's strictly about recommendations for wilderness."
A final determination on any new wilderness protections is made by Congress, according to the Forest Service.
Of the 9.3 million acres of inventoried roadless areas in the Tongass, about 296,000 acres are designated as suitable for timber production. The Tongass Timber Reform Act requires the agency to "seek to meet" market demand for timber, and it can take three to five years to award a sale to a buyer, Neill said.
"If we're going to maintain stable communities and an industry as TTRA says we're required to, we have to continue the process," Neill said.
But some Southeast Alaska environmental groups objected to the Forest Service decision, especially with court appeals pending.
"If they're serious about assessing roadless areas for wilderness values ... they need to stop planning timber sales in them until they have completed an analysis and studied the impact," said Pat Veesart, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society.
Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, said he would expect the Forest Service to continue analyzing potential timber sales on the Tongass to maintain supply. Studying areas for wilderness protection through a supplemental EIS violates the "no more" clause of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, he said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.