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Plan to let loggers into Tongass forest

More than 3 million acres of the Alaska wilderness would be made available by the federal government.

January 26, 2008|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

More than 3 million acres of pristine wilderness in Alaska's Tongass National Forest would be open to logging and road building under a new management plan released Friday by the U.S. Forest Service.

At 17 million acres, roughly the size of West Virginia, the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska is the country's largest national forest and the world's largest intact coastal temperate rain forest. It contains grizzly and black bears, wolves, eagles and five species of wild Alaskan salmon.

Under the new plan, about 3.4 million acres of the forest would be open to logging and development. Of this acreage, about 2.4 million is in roadless areas, and about 663,000 acres is considered to have trees valuable for timber production.

Local officials hailed the plan as a reasonable way to maintain the area's logging economy. But environmentalists portrayed it as the latest in a series of attempts by the Bush administration to dismantle Clinton-era protections of roadless areas and open them to logging before President Bush leaves office. Land management plans usually remain in effect for a decade.

"We're at a crucial time right now to make sure we're looking at a future that retains some of this landscape and some of this way of life for future generations," said Laurie Cooper, rain forest program director for the Alaska Wilderness League. "So much of a focus of the management plan is logging, when in fact, it's less than 1% of the economy . . . when in fact, commercial fishing [and] tourism and recreation are the two largest private industries that depend on the forest."

The plan puts aside 90,000 acres of old-growth reserves that are off-limits to logging, and protects 47,000 acres of karst lands, which are limestone formations considered vulnerable to development. The Forest Service also plans to consult with Indian tribes to protect and maintain sacred sites in the forest.

The new framework amends the 1997 management plan, which underwent 33 appeals through nearly a decade of debate and litigation involving the timber industry, environmentalists and the U.S. Forest Service. Many expect both sides to appeal the latest plan.

"The new plan suffers from the same central problem of the old plan," said Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice in Juneau, Alaska. He helped file the lawsuit against the 1997 blueprint. "It still leaves 2.4 million acres of wild, roadless backcountry areas open to clear-cutting and new logging roads."

A 2005 ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the Forest Service had mistakenly almost doubled its projections of timber demand from the Tongass in its 1997 plan, and required that the plan be amended.

The amended plan does not change the maximum timber that can be harvested from the land -- 267 million board feet per year -- said Denny Bschor, Alaska regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, who approved the amended plan.

But it does require that logging be phased in, starting in areas already cut by roads. Last year, about 19 million board feet was harvested from the Tongass National Forest. One million board feet is roughly the harvest from the area of about 33 football fields, or enough timber to build 83 three-bedroom houses, Forest Service officials said.

Bschor said the plan was a measured approach that would allow the Forest Service to balance environmental concerns with those of the industry and community.

"We see what's really possible on a gradual basis without jumping to the end and then having everybody mad at us, because we have to enter places that are very sensitive to the environmental community," Bschor said.

The Alaska Forest Assn. Inc., a timber industry group, said in a statement that it was reviewing the plan and would file an appeal if it found that the plan does not allow the industry to meet supply needs.

For the industry and communities to survive, that 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," said Owen Graham, executive director of the association.

Republican Gov. Sarah Palin congratulated the Forest Service on Friday for finalizing the amended plan. "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," Palin said in a statement.

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 in court and the rule was 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.

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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