JUNEAU, Alaska - Yesterday, the Bush administration put a "for sale" sign on trees in pristine roadless areas of the Tongass rainforest in Alaska - America's largest national forest.
This move by Bush officials to reverse roadless area protections parallels two others made recently in national forests located in Idaho and Colorado.
Conservationists from across the country are indignant that roads will be punched through some of the nation's last, best roadless areas to allow private corporations to log America's public lands.
"The few remaining roadless areas of our national forests are some of the only safe harbors for America's wildlife," said Mary Beth Beetham at Defenders of 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. It's folly for the Bush administration, in its last few months, to work to destroy these areas."
In December 2003, Bush officials "temporarily" exempted Alaska's Tongass rainforest from the Clinton era Roadless Rule, designed to protect 58 million acres of roadless wild forests in 39 states.
The Bush administration's new management plan for the Tongass National Forest will raise no revenue for the U.S. government, as the U.S. taxpayers will have to pay to build the roads the timber companies need to access the forest.
"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.
"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 do not 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."
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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 also has expressed concern with Tongass wilderness logging. The House of Representative has voted three times to stop taxpayer dollars from funding new logging roads there.
In September 2006, the federal District Court of Northern California ordered the Bush administration to reinstate the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule to protect almost 50 million acres of National Forests and grasslands across the lower 48 states and Puerto Rico from road construction, logging, and other harmful development.
Roadless area of the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. (Photo credit unknown)
Judge Elizabeth Laporte ruled that the Bush administration violated both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act by when it repealed the Roadless Rule and put into place another rule without any substantial analysis or need.
But the long term status of the roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska was not settled by Judge Laporte. In 2003, the Bush administration exempted the Tongass from the roadless rule by creating a separate amendment that was based on the validity of the Tongass Land Management Plan.
"The Forest Service is losing money hand over fist on roads that Americans don't even want," said Christy Goldfuss of Environment America.
"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."
"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," said Vickrey. "These are the very things that make Southeast Alaskans most want to live here."
© Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008