ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- For some Alaska Natives, Gravina Island equates to the Costco of traditional food. A short skiff ride from Ketchikan, the island feeds families with abundant deer, salmon, Dungeness crab and goose tongue seaweed.
''We call it our food locker,'' said Joe Williams, tribal president of the Organized Village of Saxman.
Located in the southern tip of the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, Gravina Island is also a storehouse of commercially valuable trees and a popular spot with non-Native hunters, fishermen and locals seeking a wilderness getaway.
Gravina has become the eye of a national political storm over the future of one-third of national forests, and it has thrust Alaska Natives into a battle where loggers and environmentalists are the usual warriors.
It's a bitter dispute sparked by a year-old Clinton-era initiative to protect 58.5 million acres of wild forest from logging, road building and mining. By failing to defend the so-called ''roadless'' policy in court and by issuing a series of modifications, the Bush administration over the past year has been diluting the reach of the plan as well as other environmental initiatives put in place in the waning days of the Clinton administration.
The spotlight is on Gravina Island because the U.S. Forest Service is proposing a timber sale there next year, one of the first nationally since the roadless order was unveiled.
Under the Clinton rule, the timber sale could not occur because roads would be needed for the logging. But the Bush modifications allow the sale and 22 miles of logging road on the primitive 200-square-mile island wedged between Ketchikan and Metlakatla.
The Forest Service is targeting a swath of spruce, hemlock and cedar trees, enough lumber to build about 35,000 homes.
The timber sale would give a much-needed boost to the region's ailing logging industry. Besides cutters, road engineers and heavy equipment operators would also get work and a virtually impenetrable forest would be opened to home builders, hikers and Winnebagos.
Ketchikan political leaders are squarely behind the project. Companies that have suffered since the town's pulp mill -- the major private employer -- closed four years ago are salivating at the prospect.
''It would be more than a season's work for our crews. Probably in the neighborhood of a $3 million project,'' said Jan Paulson, vice president of South Coast Inc., a Ketchikan company that builds roads.
Besides the usual players in Tongass timber wars, Natives have weighed in heavily, with many speaking out against the sale in public comments and at hearings. Two tribes have gone on record opposing the sale in its entirety. Other Natives have said they wouldn't mind the logging so much as long as the Forest Service watches out for the fish, wildlife and plants that fill their plates, said Jerry Ingersoll, district ranger in Ketchikan.
Among those guarded advocates is Sol Atkinson, a Tsimshian Indian and former mayor of Metlakatla, who has gathered food in Gravina since World War II. As a Boy Scout in the 1940s, Atkinson used to camp on the island and catch steelhead trout in Bostwick Inlet.
''I don't really care about the logging as long as subsistence is protected,'' he said. Atkinson doesn't want to see a road or log dump in Bostwick Inlet.
''History tells us that subsistence dies after that,'' he said.
A final environmental review of the Gravina sale is expected in four months, with a sale in 2003, Ingersoll said.
Some 5,000 to 6,000 people nationwide have written comments about the project, most of them opposing it, Ingersoll said. That's a high number of comments for a Tongass timber sale, he said.
Conservationists say it shows that environmental protection, and national forests in particular, are close to the hearts of Americans. They point to the 1.6 million comments the Forest Service received on Clinton's roadless plan.
''There were over 600 public hearings and a record number of comments from 50 states on the roadless policy,'' said Jane Danowitz, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign. The vast majority of comments supported the road ban.
Of all the country's national forests, Alaska's Tongass has the largest block of roadless terrain -- about 9.4 million acres. The Tongass is the biggest national forest, roughly the size of West Virginia.
The roadless rule was considered one of the most ambitious forest conservation efforts since Teddy Roosevelt set aside vast tracts of forest and parkland for conservation some 100 years ago.
The Bush administration quickly froze the rule, saying it required more review and public input, especially from people who live near national forests. The policy also became the subject of nine lawsuits by the timber industry, off-road vehicle groups and state governments including Alaska. An Idaho federal judge blocked the roadless plan with a preliminary injunction last May. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing that decision and is expected to rule any day.
Although both Attorney General John Ashcroft and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman publicly pledged to uphold the rule in the early days of the Bush presidency, the administration didn't appeal the Idaho injunction, although environmental groups did. And it has chipped away at the policy through a handful of densely worded directives that roll back many of the environmental safeguards.
Forests such as the Tongass, for example, with newly updated long-term management plans, are excluded from roadless protections under Bush modifications. So the Forest Service is free to offer timber sales in areas that otherwise would have been protected.
Bush administration officials deny that they're eviscerating forest preservation. They say the Clinton policy went too far and didn't adequately consider local, tribal and state concerns.
''The president believes there needs to be a new way of thinking when it comes to protecting environment,'' said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. ''He recognizes that we can encourage job creation and economic growth while finding innovative ways such as using 21st century technology to safeguard and protect our environment.''
In the Tongass, businesses and communities that depend on logging are applauding Bush's position on the roadless rule.
''At least the arrogance that we saw in the previous administration is gone and there's a willingness to listen,'' said Errol Champion, vice president of Juneau-based Silver Bay Logging. The company employs 40 people year-round and up to 300 seasonally.
If the appeals court reverses the Idaho injunction and allows the roadless rule to go forward, the company probably would not survive, he said.
Another black cloud for the logging industry is a separate lawsuit in Anchorage federal court involving another injunction on logging in the Tongass' unroaded lands. Last year, U.S. District Judge James Singleton found that the Forest Service should have evaluated Tongass roadless acres for possible wilderness status when it updated the forest management plan.
He imposed an injunction that halted most logging on the Tongass. Responding to industry and local pressure, Singleton lifted it pending a review of the injunction's harm. The next hearing in the case is slated for next month.
If Singleton reinstates the logging ban, two of the five operating mills in Southeast, including Silver Bay, said they will close.
If those shutdowns happen, the Alaska logging industry would become even more a shadow of its past. In the logging heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, as much as 600 million board feet of timber were cut off the Tongass annually. Logging restrictions, lawsuits and changing markets have pummeled the industry. Last year, just shy of 50 million board feet were harvested, the lowest level since 1942, according to Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association.
Among the hard-liners on both sides of the Tongass wars, there's often little room for compromise. On the Gravina timber sale at least, there could be common ground. The biggest concern of Natives who use the area is that Bostwick Inlet not be touched. There's archaeological evidence that the area has been used for subsistence food gathering for thousands of years, according to Natives and the Forest Service.
With relics of smokehouses, fish camps and tribal houses in and around the inlet, most area Natives consider Bostwick an important place.
But the rest of Gravina, at least for some, isn't quite as sacred.
''We don't have a problem with logging,'' said Victor Wellington, mayor of Metlakatla, an Indian reservation just across the water from Bostwick. ''We oppose logging in a subsistence area.''
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