Every year, thousands of people visit, play, prospect and work on the 5.4 million-acre Chugach National Forest. Now the Forest Service is looking for suggestions on how to improve its management plan.
A team of Forest Service employees held a series of community meetings throughout February to begin the three-year revision process.
During each meeting, users are asked how they use the forest, what issues they foresee in the future and how the plan revision process could be communicated to users.
“Hundreds of thousands of people visit this area,” said Don Rees, forest plan revision team leader. “They come to visit and play; in a lot of cases it’s ‘I went to Alaska once and this is where I went.’ But not only folks that come and visit and play — there’s folks that live here.”
During a recent meeting in Soldotna, Rees told a group of about 40 people who gathered to give input on the process, that the forest was an economic engine.
“The Chugach provides habitat for fish, it provides opportunity for special use permits, minerals, mining … snowmobiling, skiing, recreation, fishing, hunting, subsistence, all of it,” Rees said.
The Forest Service manages the Chugach in three basic areas.
“(On) the Kenai Peninsula, the focus there is on active management, you’ve got Prince William Sound where the focus is on wilderness values and dispersed recreation, then you’ve got the Copper River Delta and the focus on conservation of fish and wildlife,” Rees said.
The larger group split into three smaller focus groups that discussed what types of things they used the forest for and what kinds of improvements they would like to see.
Several in attendance said they were concerned about access to their mining claims as roads had recently been restricted; others talked about improved snowmachines encroaching on areas previously used by skiers.
Their comments will be combined with comments by other users and research by Forest Service employees on changes in the environment, information on the existing conditions and trends and the Forest Service will release an assessment by mid-summer, Rees said.
The document will be “non-decisional” and is the first of three phases that should lead to a new plan within three years.
Phase two will be a revised draft of the current plan and an environmental impact statement while phase three will be to develop a monitoring strategy.
The last Forest plan was adopted in 2002. Rees said the plans are supposed to last for about 15 years.
“In general, the 2002 plan appears to be working for folks and so what we want to hear from the public and others is, what isn’t working well, what is working well,” Rees said.
Marcus Mueller, a land management officer for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said the borough would be working with the Forest Service throughout the process.
“A lot of the issues that the Chugach faces are issues we also face with borough public land,” Mueller said. “We’re trying to keep a finger on the pulse here.”
Mueller said he was surprised by the number of people at the Soldotna meeting.
“I’m really excited to see the users that you don’t see very often, the miners particularly, advocating for their interests,” he said. “From my perspective it’s really important for the public to talk to the land managers because often times we’re sitting in offices … we can make guesses and try to be accommodating to what we think are the interests of the public.”
■ ■ ■
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.