The Tongass is the Amazon of North America -- a coastal rainforest with centuries-old trees providing critical habitat for wolves, bears, salmon, bald eagles and other wildlife that have disappeared from most other regions of the country. Parts of it have been logged heavily for decades but there are other areas that are still pristine. The Roadless Area Conservation Rule issued by the last administration would have protected roadless areas of the Tongass from logging and road building had the current administration allowed it to take effect. The Roadless Rule was challenged in court by the timber industry and, despite overwhelming support by the American public, the Bush administration has refused to defend it and has initiated plans to weaken it.
"The public recognizes the value of these pristine areas. Over two million Americans commented on the Roadless Rule, the vast majority advocating strong protections for wild areas in the Tongass," said Pat Veesart of the Sitka Conservation Society. "The Bush administration apparently needs to hear it again. This current wilderness review gives the public another opportunity to tell the Forest Service that it wants wild areas of the Tongass permanently protected."
The court's order halts logging in roadless areas to ensure that these vital areas are not destroyed before the public has a chance to have its voice heard. A draft Supplemental EIS (SEIS) evaluating Tongass roadless areas for their wilderness values is expected for public review and comment in May. Under the court order, new timber sales and logging activities in roadless areas would have to be suspended pending the completion of the Wilderness SEIS, including in places like the Cleveland Peninsula, Gravina Island, and Cholmondeley Sound. The order, however, allowed timber sales approved before 1999 to be logged.
"The court recognized that for the wilderness review process to have meaning, the Forest Service should not be allowed to bulldoze roads and clearcut forests until the public can be heard," said Tom Waldo of Earthjustice. "While we're pleased the court agreed that the Forest Service's violation of the law required a remedy preserving pristine areas for consideration as potential wilderness, the injunction doesn't go as far as it should. The last time the Forest Service was managing the Tongass under a lawful land management plan was eight years ago, and we've lost a lot of pristine old-growth forest since then."
Public comment on the Tongass wilderness review ordered by the court will likely have an effect on congressional efforts to protect roadless areas in the Tongass and other national forests. Representative DeLauro has introduced the Alaska Rainforest Conservation Act, H.R. 2908, which would protect the remaining roadless areas of both the Tongass and Chugach National Forests in Alaska. The bill currently has 110 co-sponsors. In a separate effort, a bipartisan group of representatives is seeking co-sponsors for a bill to be introduced shortly that would enact into law the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, adopted by the Forest Service in January of 2001, but largely abandoned by the Bush administration.
"It's important for people to send in comments on the Tongass wilderness review and let the Forest Service and Congress know that the public demands protection for the roadless areas of the Tongass," said Nicole Whittington-Evans of The Wilderness Society.
The order does not affect timber sales in the areas of the Tongass already on the road system. Conservationists argue the Forest Service should plan any sales of timber only in roaded areas and leave pristine roadless areas alone. There are 4,650 miles of existing roads in the Tongass and billions of board feet of timber readily available near that existing road system. Even though the timber companies had this volume available in roaded areas, they argued that sales in roadless areas were better moneymakers.
The environmental groups have not decided yet whether they will appeal the order.