Bush Exempts Tongass Forest From Roadless Rule

By J.R. Pegg

December 24, 2003 (ENS) - Alaska's Tongass National Forest will no longer be afforded protection under the roadless rule, the Bush administration announced late Tuesday. The decision removes some nine million acres of the Tongass from protection under the Clinton era regulation and immediately opens some 300,000 acres to road building and logging.

Administration officials say the move balances the economic needs of Alaskan communities with appropriate protection of the world's last remaining temperate rainforest, but environmentalists blasted the decision as irresponsible and unnecessary.

"To remove roadless rule protection for the Tongass is akin to exempting Yellowstone from the National Park system," said Martin Hayden of the environmental law firm Earthjustice. "It makes no sense."

The roadless rule has been a source of controversy since it was put into effect in January 2001 during the dying days of the Clinton administration.

It bans road building within some 58 million acres - or one third - of the national forests for commercial activities, but does allow new roads if needed to fight fires or to protect public health and safety. Tongass

The Forest Service will allow logging and new roads in some 300,000 acres of the Tongass. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Supporters say it provides vital protection for some of the nation's last remaining wild places and wildlife. They contend road building in these roadless areas only further subsidizes the timber industry and note that the Forest Service already faces a maintenance backlog of $8.4 billion for its 380,000 mile network of forest roads.

But the Bush administration sees the rule as too broad and restrictive and has proposed amending the regulation to allow individual exemptions for states.

Tuesday's announcement is the final settlement of Alaska's legal challenge to the rule - the administration first proposed the settlement in July.

Alaska challenged the rule as a violation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which was passed in 1980 and prohibits administrative land withdrawals.

The settlement, finalized Tuesday, commits the Forest Service to open some 300,000 roadless acres of the Tongass National Forest to logging under the 1997 management plan for the forest.

Alaska officials cheered the announcement, which supporters believe will revitalize the logging industry in Southeast Alaska while protecting 95 percent of the 16.9 million acre Tongass.

"We welcome this good news, coming as it has at Christmas time, as a boost to the people and communities of Southeast Alaska," said Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski, a Republican. "This was a vital step in our plan to rebuild the Southeast timber industry - the Tongass should again support a vibrant timber industry."

Murkowski says only 650 timber related jobs exist in Southeast Alaska compared to a high of some 5,000 a decade ago.

But conservationists say that underscores their view that the Tongass is more valuable left alone and note that of the 250,000 public comments filed on the proposal to revoke the roadless rule from the forest, more than 90 percent were opposed.

"This is another example of this administration's complete disregard for the wishes of the American people and America's environment," said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA.

The Tongass is considered by many to be the crown jewel of the national forest system. Designated a national forest in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it is the largest U.S. national forest and the largest remaining temperate rainforest on Earth.

The forest consists of old growth spruce, cedar and hemlock trees and provides critical habitat for wolves, grizzly bears, wild salmon, bald eagles and other wildlife that have disappeared from other parts of the country.

But much of the Tongass National Forest is not forest - two thirds is rock, ice, wet lands and scrub timber.

Over the past half century, the Tongass has lost a million acres of old growth forest to clearcut logging and the construction of more than 4,650 access roads.

According to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, these roads and timber sales have been subsidized by $30 million taxpayer dollars each year.

Increased logging is a misguided way to ensure the economic future of the region, conservationists say.

"Today the timber industry in Southeast Alaska is dwarfed by the main economic drivers of commercial fishing, tourism and recreation, government and health care," said Aurah Landau, community organizer with Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. "With attempts to dramatically increase Tongass logging, the Forest Service is looking backwards and ignoring the region's economic needs. More clearcuts only give us damaged forests, displaced non timber businesses, and declining wildlife populations."

In anticipation of Tuesday's decision, conservationists filed a legal challenge earlier this month to the management plan for the Tongass and to six timber sales in roadless areas of the forest.

The groups said the plans violate laws requiring full public disclosure of impacts, and that the Forest Service has failed to heed the findings of government science panels showing that wildlife populations would be put at risk by high levels of clearcut logging in key habitat.