Senate OKs Logging Road Subsidies in Alaska's Tongass Forest

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 30, 2005 (ENS) - The Senate on Wednesday rejected a proposal to ban federal subsidies for new logging roads in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. It is the largest U.S. national forest and the largest remaining temperate rainforest on Earth.

Proponents of the measure said it would strike a blow for fiscal responsibility.

The Forest Service spent some $48 million on Tongass logging subsidies last year, but earned a return of less than $800,000 from federal timber sales in the Alaskan rainforest.

The Tongass is “an area where more money is being spent to build more roads to benefit private companies with the least return imaginable,” said Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican and cosponsor of the proposed ban.

Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens said proponents were unfairly singling out the Tongass timber subsidy and trying to put more of the forest off limits to logging.

“This is not about spending,” Stevens said. “If it were, it would apply to all forests.”

Tongass

The Tongass National Forest is the largest temperate rainforest on the planet. (Photo by Katerina Zelena courtesy Earthjustice)
“Environmental groups urged these senators to bring this amendment,” Stevens said. “This is not saving one dime. It is just saying that money can’t be spent in Alaska.”

The amendment, included in an appropriations bill for the Interior Department, was defeated by a vote of 59-39.

The $26.3 billion bill also includes funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Forest Service and other land and cultural programs.

The spending bill passed Wednesday night by a vote of 94-0 - it is $752 million less than last year’s appropriations.

Passions run high over the Tongass, considered by many to be the crown jewel of the national forest system.

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.

Roughly four percent of the 17.8 million acre forest is open to logging.

Logging advocates say that is not enough, but environmentalists counter that much of the Tongass National Forest is not forest. Two thirds is rock, ice, wet lands and scrub timber.

Tongass

Hubbard Glacier in the Tongass National Forest, looking west from Russell Fiord. May 3, 2004. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
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.

Proponents of the ban repeatedly cast the debate in economic terms and said the Forest Service faces a road maintenance backlog in the Tongass of more than $100 million.

“I do want to see the rare Alaskan Tongass rainforest protected, but that is not what this amendment does,” said Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. “Let me be very clear about this point. This amendment does not place a prohibition on logging. It does, however, place a prohibition on taxpayers footing the bill for logging.”

Stevens said litigation by environmentalist groups drives up the Forest Service’s cost in the Tongass.

The federal agency plans and builds the timber access roads “for the protection of the wildlife, the fish, the scenic recreations areas for residents and visitors.”

“The study for those roads takes more money than building the roads … the litigation takes more money than both,” Stevens said.

Senator Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, said proponents were trying to enact a backdoor ban on logging in roadless areas and should apply the same economic standard to all activities in the national forests.

“Let’s take out the programs for recreation, wilderness and trail maintenance unless the public pays their fair share,” Craig said.

demonstration

Greenpeace activists and local residents stop roadbuilding and timber operations in an area of the Alaskan rainforest where clearcutting is taking place. August 3, 2004. (Photo © Les Stone/Greenpeace)
Environmentalists say economics – and conservation – merit the ban on new logging roads in the Tongass.

"America’s taxpayers deserve better treatment, as does America’s rainforest," said Sean Cosgrove, a national forest policy specialist with the Sierra Club. "There is little economic sense in continuing to spend tax dollars to subsidize construction of more logging roads when other recreation and wildlife needs are going unmet."

REP America, the national organization of Republicans for environmental protection, called the amendment's defeat "a defeat for fiscal responsibility and for sensible conservation."

"We're disappointed that the Senate majority failed to call a halt to the continued squandering of taxpayer dollars on uneconomical Tongass timber projects," said Jim DiPeso, REP America policy director. "The Forest Service is spending money it cannot afford to subsidize roads for timber sales that don't pay their own way. At a time of large budget deficits, that makes no sense at all."

"The Tongass National Forest is a magnificent treasure, featuring a rare coastal temperate rainforest that offers some of the best fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing, and outdoor recreation in America," said David Jenkins, REP America government affairs director.

"For far too long, the Forest Service has mismanaged the Tongass to please special interests and serve parochial agendas," Jenkins said. "It is high time for Congress to step in and protect our Tongass heritage on behalf of its owners, the American people."