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No New Wilderness?

Revving buzz saws in Alaska’s Tongass could drown out the public

By Marilyn Berlin Snell

In its first major ruling on wilderness protection, the Bush administration has tentatively decided that a huge swath of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is just too valuable to timber companies to be left alone.

The 17-million-acre Tongass stretches 500 miles along the state’s rugged southeast coastline and is one of the largest remaining temperate rainforests on Earth. While 5.7 million acres have been protected by Congress as wilderness, the Clinton administration’s 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule effectively saved an additional 9 million acres from being logged, mined, or scarred with roads.

Shortly after Bush was elected, his administration announced that it would review the roadless rule, and the Forest Service zeroed in on the Tongass. It took a suit from the Sierra Club and Earthjustice and a court order to make sure this review included the possibility of creating new Tongass wilderness. When the Forest Service released its results last May, it submitted eight alternatives containing varying levels of protection, but recommended one that called for no new wilderness.

The Forest Service then solicited public comments. It got an earful. The Associated Press reported that in the logging town of Sitka, Alaska, 100 people showed up at a public hearing on the Tongass proposals and "not a single person testified in favor of road development or logging." Strong pro-wilderness turnouts were also reported throughout southeast Alaska as well as in Anchorage. Sierra Club members alone sent in more than 4,500 letters and postcards calling for "Alternative 8," which advocated permanent protection for 9 million acres of wildlands and old-growth forests.

At press time, the Forest Service had yet to make its final announcement about the future of the Tongass, where industrial-scale logging has already removed nearly 70 percent of its magnificent giant hemlock, spruce, and cedar trees. But if the Potlatch Corporation has its way, more old growth may soon be coming to a paper-supply store near you. When comments were solicited in 2001 on whether to let stand the Clinton-era roadless rule, the Idaho-based forest-products company was quick to respond. According to the Heritage Forests Campaign, which analyzed more than 687,000 of these comments (97 percent of which supported keeping the rule intact), a Potlatch representative wrote, "This is not a vote. Don’t pretend to make it a vote. You are asking for substantive comments to help with decision-making. If a group sends you 10,000 cards with the same comment, it counts as only one substantive comment. . . . The only vote that counts took place in Florida last November."

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