Forest Service to seek wilderness status for much of Chugach

Posted: Friday, March 31, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The U.S. Forest Service has issued a draft management plan that would set aside the Chugach National Forest primarily as wilderness, with an emphasis on wildlife and recreation rather than mining or logging.

The agency wants 2.3 million acres of the 5.5 million-acre forest designated as wilderness. That would require congressional approval.

The proposal includes much of the land surrounding Prince William Sound, which the Forest Service previously has recommended for wilderness protection. The plan also includes the eastern half of the Copper River Delta, which never before has been recommended to remain as wilderness.

Such areas usually are left in a primitive state with no developed campgrounds or logging and only limited mineral development.

Environmentalists are applauding the move although they also want some land set aside on the Kenai Peninsula.

They said the Copper River Delta merits special protection because it is one of the nation's largest wetlands and is home to some 16 (m) million shorebirds and waterfowl.

''It's an ecosystem of almost unparalleled productivity,'' said Jim Adams of the National Wildlife Federation, one of the organizations that has pushed for protection of the delta.

But the wilderness recommendation is drawing fire from a number of other groups. That includes fishermen, miners, a Native corporation and members of Alaska's congressional delegation.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska and chairman of the House Resources Committee, launched an investigation this week into the Chugach Forest planning process. Young contends that it favors environmentalists.

Steve Hansen, a spokesman for the committee, said the investigation will examine how the Forest Service selected land for wilderness designation and who influenced decisions.

''This is what is happening nationally,'' Hansen told the Anchorage Daily News. ''In large public lands states, the Forest Service is working to take multiple-use lands and turn them into wilderness.''

Alan Vandiver, a Forest Service planner in Anchorage, said he would welcome an investigation. The forest planning process has been one of the most open ever, with more than 150 public meetings over a two-year period, he said.

The old 1984 forest plan placed few restrictions on uses and therefore left many decisions to district rangers, Vandiver said. The draft plan announced Thursday aims to preserve the land much as it is now, he said, which is what many people said they wanted.

Chugach forest supervisor Dave Gibbons said he has tried to strike a balance that communities and people who depend upon the land can live with while also protecting the land's primitive character for Alaskans and tourists.

The plan gives a special wilderness designation to the Copper River Delta that would allow continued use of airboats and helicopters, which are used for hunting, fishing and research.

Other motorized uses normally allowed in many of Alaska's wilderness areas would be permitted throughout the 2.3 million acres.

Along with recommending wilderness designations and setting aside areas for different kinds of recreation, the draft plan would impact:

--Heli-skiing: Areas allowing heli-skiing plus helicopter tours with landings on glaciers would be set aside around Girdwood, Cordova and Valdez. The areas also would allow commercial filming on glaciers, which Gibbons said is a growing request.

--Mining: Mining would be allowed in most areas outside designated wilderness, particularly on Knight Island and in Pigot and Bettles bays in Prince William Sound.

--Oil and gas: Opportunities for oil and gas leasing would be available in the Katalla area of the Copper River Delta.

--Tourism development: Gibbons said he didn't want to allow construction of lodges on forest land within Prince William Sound because they would compete with developments on private land. Small primitive campgrounds would be allowed around Whittier, while the Forest Service hopes to work with the state to concentrate floating facilities in areas like Simpson and Sheep bays.

--Spruce bark beetles: Some timber harvesting would be allowed along roads on the Kenai Peninsula to control the beetle infestation. The Forest Service also recommends an aggressive policy of prescribed burns on the Kenai. And,

--Wild and scenic rivers: The Forest Service has recommended some rivers on the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound for wild and scenic designation, which affords special protection.


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