ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A final revision of the Chugach National Forest management plan was due to be unveiled last month, but a congressional audit has delayed the process.
Forest Service officials say they don't expect release of the plan until at least March.
Once complete, the plan will govern management of the forest for the next 10 to 15 years, regulating everything from where snowmachines can go to which lands can be developed.
The draft Chugach management plan had called for setting aside nearly a third of the forest as wilderness, including much of the Copper River delta.
Alaska's Rep. Don Young and Sen. Frank Murkowski has requested an audit into how the plan was crafted.
A team of investigators from the General Accounting Office traveled to Alaska in August to look into how the plan was crafted. Their report was supposed to be complete by now. This winter, however, the two lawmakers raised additional questions, prompting investigators to return to Alaska in January. Their report is expected sometime this spring.
In particular, Young, Murkowski and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, have questioned whether the Forest Service can legally recommend more lands for wilderness, which would preclude development.
Young, Murkowski and Stevens have argued that a clause in the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act precludes the agency from recommending additional lands in Alaska for wilderness status.
The Forest Service has argued that the wilderness designation falls within the law. A letter sent two years ago from Chugach Forest Service Supervisor Dave Gibbons argues that the ANILCA clause applies only to statewide wilderness reviews, not to forest plans.
At the heart of the controversy is the Copper River Delta, one of the nation's largest wetlands and an area of the forest that environmentalists say deserves special protection because of its importance to wildlife.
The delay of the plan concerns environmentalists and some tourism industry representatives. They fear the audit will be used by the Bush administration to undo work done under the Clinton administration.
''A lot of time and effort and public participation went into the plan,'' said Sarah Leonard, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association.
''They want to delay the plan until the public forgets about it,'' said Jim Adams, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation in Alaska.
Rick Rogers, vice president of lands and resources for Chugach Alaska Corp., said he welcomes the audit because the Native corporation has had concerns with the plan all along.
''It's encouraging that some of these issues are being looked at,'' he said. ''And it makes sense for the report to come out before the plan.''
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