This move by Bush officials to reverse roadless area protections joins two others made recently in the national forests located in Idaho and Colorado.
"The few remaining roadless areas of our national forests are some of the only safe harbors for America's wildlife. As global warming threatens to dramatically change the landscape we must have the foresight to preserve these last remaining pristine forests for future generations," said Mary Beth Beetham at Defenders of Wildlife. "It's folly for the Bush administration, in its last few months, to work to destroy these areas."
The Bush administration's just-released management plan for the Tongass National Forest will raise no revenue for the U.S. government, as the U.S. taxpayers themselves will have to pay to build the roads the timber companies need to access the forest. The Tongass is the largest national forest in the country.
"With so much of our forest heritage already lost, every roadless acre counts. The spectacular roadless areas in Alaska deserve as much protection as those in every other state," said Larry Edwards with Greenpeace in Sitka, Alaska.
Today's decision is part of the Bush administration's rapidly materializing last-ditch assault on public lands in general and roadless areas in particular.
"The Roadless Rule and the courts have sheltered many of the last, best places in our national forests, even during an administration hostile to forest protection. Now, with one foot out the door, Bush officials are looking for whatever way they can to give away the family silver," said Franz Matzner at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Tongass logging fell dramatically in the 1990s, and for years now has existed at levels that don't require slicing roads and clearcuts into virgin old-growth forests, as the Forest Service itself has acknowledged.
"The new plan suffers from the same central problem as the old plan. It leaves 2.4 million acres of wild, roadless backcountry areas open to clear cutting and new logging roads," said Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo. "The Tongass is worth a whole lot more to the American people as a standing forest than it is as a sea of stumps and logs."
"Today," said Caitlin Hills with American Lands Alliance, "the federal government, in defiance of the facts and the strongly expressed sentiments of the American people to protect all roadless areas, has answered 'fire up the chainsaws.'"
"The Tongass is the crown jewel of our nation's roadless wildlands," said Trish Rolfe at Alaska Sierra Club. "Wild salmon, bears, eagles, and wolves thrive there among moss-draped ancient trees, along crystalline fjords and untamed rivers. It has nine million acres of roadless areas that lack permanent protection. The Bush administration has just put some of the best of them on the chopping block."
In 2003, the Bush administration began to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, but was unable to proceed with new timber sales in roadless areas due to critical defects in the forest plan. Today's plan was supposed to correct those defects, but still reopens pristine areas to logging and road construction. Because other state-specific exemptions are as yet only plans, the Tongass is the only national forest where such logging would even arguably be allowed.
"All over the Tongass there are roadless wildlands that local people and visitors hold dear, jeopardized by this new plan," said Gregory Vickrey with Tongass Conservation Society. "These are special places critical to the region's incredible fish, deer and other wildlife, world-famous recreational opportunities, cherished subsistence practices, and the businesses and jobs that depend on the region's natural treasures. These are the very things that make Southeast Alaskans most want to live here."
The land management plan released today was ordered more than two years ago by a federal court which concluded that the old plan justifying opening Tongass wildlands for development was invalid due to several factors, including a gross overestimation of demand for Tongass logs. Congress has also expressed concern with Tongass wilderness logging. The House of Representative has voted three times to stop taxpayer dollars from funding new logging roads there.
"The Forest Service is losing money hand over fist on roads that Americans don't even want," said Christy Goldfuss of Environment America.