A long-standing fear of the Southeast Alaska timber industry was realized this morning when the Tongass National Forest was included in a proposed ban on logging in roadless areas of national forests.
A final environmental impact statement released by the U.S. Forest Service reverses a preliminary decision last spring to exempt the Tongass, although roadless areas of the largest national forest would not be included until 2004.
The new document, which affects 58.5 million acres of forest land nationwide, prohibits most logging in roadless areas, whereas the draft would have banned only roadbuilding, leaving open the possibility of helicopter or beach logging.
Local environmentalists didn't immediately declare victory. Buck Lindekugel of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said he's worried about what happens before the roadless policy goes into effect for the Tongass.
With the "crumbling infrastructure" of the Tongass road system already impeding fish passage, any more roadbuilding in the interim is of great concern, he said. "We think it's a serious mistake to wait until 2004. It's going to put Southeast Alaska through the same trauma as when the pulp mills went down."
Lindekugel held out hope that the final roadless rule would include the Tongass immediately.
A leading timber industry spokesman said today's news, while bad, was not unexpected.
"I'm not surprised," said Jack Phelps, president of the Ketchikan-based Alaska Forest Association. "The administration has made it very clear that its avowed goal is to end all timber harvests in the Tongass National Forest. It's been my view all along that they fully intended to include the Tongass. They set up the draft EIS in such a way to stall off the debate until after the presidential election."
Thus the vote recount in Florida becomes immediately relevant to the Southeast economy, Phelps said. "Mr. Gore said several times on the campaign trail that he was going to, quote-unquote, protect the Tongass. ... I think a Bush administration is much more likely to seek a balance."
Phelps didn't rule out litigation and said all Alaskans should be concerned. Congress decided in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that there should be no more "withdrawals" of land for conservation purposes without congressional approval, he said.
Today's decision, announced in Washington, D.C., by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, is not final. The EIS has "a preferred alternative" for including the Tongass in the roadless policy, but a formal record of decision scheduled for mid-December, just a month before President Clinton leaves office, will determine what regulations are implemented.
"We cannot speculate on if or how the final rule will differ from the preferred alternative," said a statement from the Alaska Region of the Forest Service. "We cannot speculate on how the selection of a new president might influence the decision on the final rule. Congress has oversight authority on new regulations, and within a given time period could vote to overturn a rule, subject to presidential approval."
Spokesman Bob King said Gov. Tony Knowles, who opposed roadless restrictions in the Tongass, said the 2004 effective date would allow more public discussion of the issue.
The Tongass covers 16.6 million acres, 8.5 million of which are inventoried as roadless.
Staff in the Alaska Region estimate that under the roadless policy, about 50 to 55 million board feet of timber could be offered for sale in an average year, a reduction of about two-thirds from the estimated average for 2001-04. The analysis says the Forest Service could not meet market demand for timber from the Tongass if the policy were in place now.
The original exemption for the Tongass was announced by Dombeck in May. Environmentalists immediately objected, with Lindekugel of SEACC saying it "rips a gaping hole in the plan."
At the time, Dombeck noted the Forest Service was under a legal obligation to meet market demand for timber. He also noted a lengthy and bruising fight over a new 10-year land-management policy for the Tongass, which went into effect in 1999.
But before and after the Tongass exemption was proposed, public comments favored including it.
"Never before have the American people so actively participated in helping to decide how their public lands should be managed," Glickman said in a statement. "The fact that more than 1.5 million comments were received from Americans show that these truly are all of the people's lands, not just a few, and they care deeply about how they are cared for."
Forest industry officials told the Associated Press that many people who want the option of building roads did not comment because they felt Forest Service officials already had made up their minds.
Forest Service staff in Alaska said the roadless policy would not conflict with plans for upgrading the road system on Prince of Wales Island and connecting the island with Petersburg and Wrangell by ferry. There could be a conflict with the Southeast Alaska electrical intertie project, although the Department of Energy and other federal agencies might have the authority to set aside the roadless rule in such cases.
A veneer plant being developed in Ketchikan, which has an estimated capacity of about 50 million board feet a year, "will need to compete with other bidders on timber sales," according to the statement by regional agency staff.