ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The U.S. Forest Service says there's no need for any more wilderness in the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.
The agency issued a supplemental environmental impact statement Friday that leads to the automatic lifting of an injunction stopping several timber sales in the Tongass.
''I'm happy and I'm relieved,'' said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association. ''I think the SEIS process was a waste of time.... The Forest Service made the right decision in the first place.''
Gov. Frank Murkowski quickly supported the decision.
''There is no justification for additional wilderness on the Tongass,'' Murkowski said in a statement.
Environmental groups were disappointed but not surprised.
''It was fully expected,'' said Tom Waldo of Earthjustice in Juneau. ''Today's decision was another sellout to the timber industry.''
The decision will allow logging of four timber sales halted by U.S. District Judge John Singleton. The judge ruled in 2001 that the Forest Service violated federal law when it failed to consider some areas for wilderness designation in the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan.
Then last June, he barred the Forest Service from allowing most timber harvesting and road building in roadless areas until 45 days after the study is completed. Friday's decision doesn't affect the ban on logging in roadless areas added in the waning days of the Clinton administration.
''There's enough timber in those four sales to take care of the industry for a year,'' said Graham.
He said the next step is to get rid of the roadless rule, and then persuade the Forest Service to allow cutting of 360 million board feet a year, still well below the 450 million board feet that came out of the forest in the peak years.
Forest Service officials said Friday the forest would be protected in the Tongass even without new wilderness designations.
''Nearly 90 percent of the Tongass will continue to be wild lands,'' said Tom Puchlerz, the forest supervisor. ''We don't expect more than 4 percent will have timber harvested on it.''
But the percentages are deceiving, Waldo said.
''Only a few hundred thousand acres have big trees that are valuable for harvesting,'' he said. ''Those big-tree, old-growth stands are also the most valuable for wildlife.
''They're going to be zeroing in on those big, old-growth trees. And about half is gone already, maybe more than half.''
Jeremy Anderson of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council agreed. ''What they're not saying is that the most important areas continue to be scheduled for logging,'' he said.
''The Tongass has 5,000 miles of road now,'' Anderson said. ''They're planning to build another 3,800 miles of logging roads that will impact 1.8 million acres of land, according to them.''
The Forest Service plan calls for timber cutting on 656,000 additional acres in the forest. Before the 1997 plan, 440,000 acres had been historically open, said Puchlerz, the forest supervisor.
The Forest Service received 175,000 comments on the issue, Puchlerz said, but ''90 percent of them were sort of form letters'' that the agency essentially disregarded.
''That shows a real contempt for the public process,'' said Waldo of Earthjustice. He said the vast majority of the letters, and most of the people who testified at hearings, favor more wilderness protection.
Regional Forester Denny Bschor agreed there was broad support for wilderness.
''Yes, we love wilderness in this nation. There's a tremendous amount of interest in new wilderness. But we have to balance the national situation with the local situation,'' he said. Southeast Alaska communities need road corridors and power lines and water lines, he said.
The Forest Service also announced it would recommend designating 1.4 million acres as wilderness in the Chugach National Forest. If Congress approves, it will be the first wilderness in that national forest, the second largest in the nation after the Tongass.
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