December 24, 2003
The U.S. Forest Service announced Tuesday that after reviewing thousands of public comments that it had decided to proceed with implementing an agreement it reached this summer with the State of Alaska following a lawsuit initiated by the State of Alaska. Under the agreement the Forest Service agrees that the state was correct to protest the Clinton Administration's decision in late 2000 that locked up about 98 percent of the forest, placing it off limits to road construction and thus multiple use.
This decision has the effect of permitting timber harvesting to resume in the Tongass on an additional 300,000 acres of the 17-million-acre forest. Nearly 96 percent of the forest, however, remains off limits to logging under terms of the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan (TLMP), clearly protecting the environment in the nation's largest national forest.
The Senator noted that the Forest Service has spent 13 years preparing one of the most scientifically based forest plans in the nation, and since 1997 has not been able to implement the plan due to appeals, modified decisions by past administrations and the potentially disabling roadless rule.
"This was the best outcome for the health of both the forest and Alaskans who depend on the renewable timber resource for their livelihoods. It ends the last impediment to the resumption of a sufficient timber harvest to keep the remaining timber mills in the region alive. It also provides hope that the jobs of more than a 1,000 Alaskans in Southeast can be saved. It confirms that Alaskans were right in believing the Alaska lands act meant 'no more' to calls for additional withdrawals than the 139 million acres in Alaska the federal government took claim to in 1980," said Sen. Murkowski, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, that has jurisdiction over the forest.
Murkowski said she thought the Forest Service was correct in believing it would lose a court challenge to the state over the roadless withdrawals, if it had tried to defend the Clinton-era policy. She said Alaskans believe that forests in Alaska were protected from further administrative withdrawals under several provisions in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. The Alaska Delegation said it believes that the roadless rule violates a series of sections in ANILCA, specifically, Section 101(d) that says "Congress believes that the need for future legislation designating new conservation system units, new national conservation areas, or new national recreation acres, has been obviated" by the act; and Section 708 (b)  that says that "unless expressly authorized by Congress, the Department of Agriculture shall not conduct any further statewide roadless area review and evaluation of national forest system lands in the State of Alaska for the purpose of determining their suitability for inclusion in the national wilderness preservation system."
Sen. Murkowski also said roadless withdrawals to protect the health of the forest were unnecessary in the Tongass, which already has more protected acreage than any other forest in the nation based on the most recent Tongass land plan.
"Based on my legal review of the existing law, I believe the courts would have eventually found that the Clinton Administration's decision, which added the Tongass to the national roadless effort at the last minute after saying for years that it was unnecessary and illegal to do, was bad public policy," said Murkowski, an attorney. "However, the length of time required to get a final judicial resolution to the case would have seen the final closure of the remaining timber sawmills in Southeast. The latest decision offers a real chance that the Forest Service next year will be able to provide enough timber to keep the industry alive in the Panhandle," said Murkowski, noting that only about 50 million board feet (mmbf) were harvested last year in the nation's largest forest.
That compares to the more than 450 mmbf of timber cut in New York State for firewood alone. The Senator stated that the decision should allow the Forest Service to fully implement the 1997 TLMP that called for an annual timber harvest in the Tongass of between 220 and 263 million board feet a year.
The Senator noted that the government, barring environmental law suits, should be able to proceed with timber sales that had already been planned and had met environmental standards prior to the roadless rule's issuance. This decision, coupled with legislation that passed in January ending appeals of an environmental "wilderness" law suit, means that the 1997 TLMP is finally cleared to take full effect. The hope is that the ruling will also pave the way for a veneer plant in Ketchikan to reopen thereby restoring important jobs to Ketchikan's economy, said Murkowski.
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