The future of the Tongass National Forest - the largest and wildest national forest in the United States - hangs under a dark cloud. The U.S. Forest Service, driven by Alaska's congressional delegation and their pals in the timber industry, has greatly accelerated timber planning in Tongass Roadless Areas. It's clear that their intent is to cut and run quickly before somebody stops them. The recent introduction of the Alaska Rain Forest Conservation Act could be a sign that Congress is poised to do just that.
There are 103 timber sale projects on the Tongass right now in various stages of the NEPA process. Over half of these sales are in Roadless Areas. Two-thirds of the timber volume to be offered in the next five years will come from Roadless Areas. The total projected timber offer within Roadless Areas on the Tongass in the next five years (fiscal years 2000 to 2004) is 539 million board feet, requiring 512 miles of road construction and reconstruction. At these levels, 60 million board feet would likely be harvested annually from inventoried roadless areas alone.
Taxpayers can expect to lose $150 million dollars or more during this five-year period.
With timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey as the new undersecretary of Agriculture and Steve "never saw a road he didn't like" Brink as Region 10 interim regional forester, the Forest Service in Alaska is out of control.
America's great temperate rainforest is being converted into taxpayer-subsidized profits for the timber industry at the expense of hunters, fishers, guides, and everyday Alaskans who depend upon subsistence to feed their families.
Never mind that:
Nearly 2.5 million Americans, in the largest public process in U.S. history, have called for a halt to road building and logging in national forest Roadless Areas.
A district judge has declared the Tongass Land Management Plan illegal because it failed to consider Tongass wildlands for permanent protection under the Wilderness Act.
Polls, by both Republican and Democrat pollsters, indicate that 76 percent of Americans (62 percent Republicans) support an end to logging in roadless areas, especially in the Tongass.
That the Tongass Timber Program loses $30 million annually.
The Forest Service is not listening to the public. They are doing exactly the opposite of what the public has asked them to do and they are doing it as quickly as possible before anybody figures out how to stop them. It does not get much uglier than this folks. It's little wonder that Americans have lost faith in the Forest Service and the forest planning process.
Fortunately, somebody is listening. Led by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Connie Morella R-Md., 78 congressional representatives have co-sponsored a bill that would accomplish, through an act of Congress, what the public has repeatedly asked for and what the Forest Service has refused to deliver: An end to the destruction of roadless areas in Alaska's national forests. The Alaska Rain Forest Conservation Act (HR 2908) would protect the Tongass and Chugach National Forests by:
Designating wilderness areas, wilderness study areas and wild and scenic rivers.
Protecting other wildlands by expanding "Land Use Designation II" (LUD II) areas, which are closed to commercial logging.
Protecting watersheds and critical wildlife habitat of Prince William Sound, the Copper River Delta and the Kenai Peninsula.
Expanding Admiralty Island National Monument to include Mansfield Peninsula.
Establishing restoration areas, where lands damaged in the past are rehabilitated and protected.
Establishing special management areas, where small-scale community-based resource management would be allowed but clearcutting and new, permanent road building would be prohibited.
The Alaska Rain Forest Conservation Act provides for fishing, hunting, recreation, tourism, subsistence and responsible development in the Alaska rain forest. In other words, the act finally forces the Forest Service to manage Alaska's national forests for multiple use and maximum public benefit instead of only for taxpayer-subsidized logging.
HR 2908 could be the last chance for Alaska's national forests; a last chance for brown bears, wild salmon and generations yet to come. The future of Alaska's rain forest belongs in the hands of the American people, not in the hands of the Alaskan delegation and their cronies. These are not the "king's forests"; they are your forests.
Pat Veesart is executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society.