Saturday, January 26, 2008
Bush Administration Opens Up 3.4 Million Acres Of Alaska's Tongass National Forest To Logging And Possibly Mining
More than 3 million acres in Alaska's Tongass National Forest is being opened to logging, mining and road building under a new Bush administration decision that supporters say will revive Alaska's timber industry but environmentalists fear will devastate the forest. Media stories published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the Anchorage Daily News, and KTUU Channel 2 in Anchorage.
A detailed report has also been published by the Environmental News Service. While written exclusively from the environmental point of view, it provides an exceptionally detailed overview of environmental concerns.
On Friday January 25th, 2007, the Bush administration released a revised management plan for the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. At 17 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest in the country. The plan would open about 3.4 million acres to logging and other development, including about 2.4 million acres that are now remote and roadless. About 663,000 acres are in areas considered most valuable for timber production.
The final draft of the plan will be published and posted on the Tongass website as early as January 28th. Those who want a sneak preview can review a 32-page summary of the draft plan (in PDF format) as submitted to Washington earlier.
Alaska Regional Forester Denny Bschor, who approved the new plan, said it tries to sustain the diversity and health of the forest, provide livelihoods for Alaskans and ensure recreation and solitude for visitors. "There may be disappointment that the (allowable timber sales) hasn't increased or diminished, depending on your viewpoint," Bschor said in a news release. "What is significant in the amended plan, however, is our commitment to the state of Alaska to provide an economic timber sale program which will allow the current industry to stabilize, and for an integrated timber industry to become established." Bschor also pointed out that the new plan envisions a phased approach that will help stabilize the volume of timber available and help the industry plan better.
The new plan adds 90,000 acres to old-growth reserves and protects 47,000 acres of land considered most vulnerable to development. It also pledges the Forest Service to work with Indian tribes to protect sacred sites across the forest, often labeled the "crown jewel" in the national forest system. At more than 26,000 square miles, the Tongass is larger than 10 states.
As expected, environmentalists criticized the plan, saying that it continues a Bush policy of catering to the timber industry. "It leaves 2.4 million acres of wild, roadless backcountry areas open to clearcutting and new logging roads," said Tom Waldo of the Earthjustice environmental law firm.
Sequencing the timber cut, meaning that it can only be harvested in sections, makes it unlikely the industry will get to log the most biologically rich areas and those most valued for recreation, said Aurah Landau, a publicist for environmental groups. To get to the richest forest, the industry must show it's cutting a certain amount for some years -- at a time when timber prices are low.
"From an economic standpoint, I would question whether it would ever happen," Landau said. "But you never say never." She said the Forest Service "is starting to look at the region more holistically" and realizing that cutting timber might not be compatible with continuing to attract 1 million cruise-ship visitors annually.
Christy Goldfuss of Environment America also panned the idea, claiming that it ignores economic realities. Goldfuss said that while the plan would allow timber sales of up to 267 million board feet a year -- enough for nearly 27,000 two-bedroom homes -- demand for timber is far short of that. Less than 20 million board feet was logged on the forest last year (a board foot is the volume of a piece of wood 1-foot square and 1-inch thick. It takes about 10,000 board feet to build a two-bedroom home). However, Denny Bschor demurred, saying that 267 million board feet was a maximum cap for annual logging -- not a goal of the management plan. He believes a more realistic goal to be 100 million board feet per year.
Surprisingly, industry representatives were also critical of the plan. The Alaska Forest Association (caution - once you enter their website, you will have to exit your browser to get out), an industry group, said that the plan may not meet the industry's needs. If necessary, the group said, it will file an appeal challenging the rule in court -- a threat also made by environmentalists. "It is critical that the final plan ... allows our industry to survive," said Owen Graham, the group's executive director. "Survival means returning to a realistic timber supply level in Southeast Alaska, not a continuation of the starvation level we have been struggling with for the last few years."
The Nature Conservancy of Alaska was cautiously optimistic. “When it comes to conservation, there appear to be significant improvements in this plan. It postpones new roads and logging in many of the areas The Nature Conservancy’s science-based research identified as important for fish and wildlife and it also provides needed timber for local sawmills,” said Randy Hagenstein, state director for the Conservancy.
The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, developed in the Clinton administration and adopted in 2001, prohibited most new road construction and logging throughout millions of acres of the country's national forests. In 2003, the Bush administration exempted the Tongass National Forest from the roadless rule, then in 2005 repealed the rule entirely, allowing states to submit petitions to adopt their own plans. The repeal was struck down by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because the Forest Service had mistakenly doubled the volume of timber needed to supply local swamills and failed to consider better protections for roadless areas. The Roadless Rule was then reinstated in 2006. But Idaho and Colorado are in the process of trying to open up their roadless areas: 6 million acres in Idaho for potential logging and mining, and 4.1 million acres in Colorado for possible development.
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who graces the cover of the most current issue of Alaska Magazine, was pleased with the plan. "This is a tremendous step toward having a sustainable, integrated timber industry," said Palin. "We remain committed to responsible development that protects the diversity and health of the forest's wildlife while sustaining jobs and subsistence for residents of Southeast Alaska."
Alaska's Congressional delegation also reacted. Senator Lisa Murkowski said, "I hope that those who care about the Tongass will not let this opportunity slip away". Congressman Don Young said, "Years of countless environmental lawsuits have devastated the economy in southeast Alaska and stalled a Tongass plan from moving forward." and Sen. Ted Stevens says it's a step in the right direction, but he's " ...withholding final judgment until we complete our review and hear from the timber industry on the plan's effectiveness."
The plan is expected to take effect in mid-February. Groups have 90 days to issue a legal challenge.