ANCHORAGE (AP) The Bush administration will uphold a Clinton-era policy to protect large tracts of national forests from logging and road building, but Alaska's vast Tongass and Chugach forests would be excluded and governors could seek exemptions to the rule.
The Alaska timber industry and the state's Republican leadership applauded Monday's announcement from undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, as environmentalists denounced it as a deal that benefits loggers at the expense of fish, wildlife, tourism and people who enjoy national forests.
''This decision offers a real chance that by this time next year the Forest Service will be able to provide enough timber to keep a vital industry alive in the Panhandle,'' said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist who heads the Forest Service, said the administration will retain what has come to be known as the roadless rule, one of President Clinton's most sweeping environmental initiatives to put 58.5 million acres nationwide off-limits to logging, including about 15 million in Alaska.
However, states could skirt the much litigated policy that lumber companies, off-road vehicle groups and several states, including Alaska, have challenged.
The Bush administration will consider requests by governors to have national forests, or portions of them, excluded from the logging and road-building restrictions, Rey said. The government will consider human health or safety factors, fire reduction, access to private property, or boundary adjustments, among other criteria.
Allowing some exemptions to the rule creates ''a real opportunity to engage the states as partners'' and to improve the roadless policy in situations in which it makes sense, Rey said.
Critics see the exemptions as a loophole to water down the Clinton plan. Leaving the country's two largest national forests, both in Alaska, out of the roadless policy guts the goal, they said.
Rey also announced Monday that the federal government has settled a lawsuit, filed by then-Gov. Tony Knowles against the Forest Service, that said the roadless rule was unlawful in Alaska because of provisions within the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the Tongass Timber Reform Act.
Under the settlement, the Forest Service will launch a summer-long public comment period later this month on the administration's plan to exclude the Tongass from the logging ban, Rey said. A separate round of comment on the Chugach will be taken in September.
''It's a sweetheart deal between the timber industry and the timber industry's former lobbyist, who is now running the national forests for the Bush administration. It takes millions of acres of the Tongass and the Chugach and turns them over to the timber industry for clear-cutting,'' said Tom Waldo, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law firm.
Rey rejected the accusation.
''We can't change the roadless rule without going through a public process. It's all transparent,'' he said. Rey also noted that only about 300,000 of the Tongass' 17 million acres would become available for logging in the short term if the forest is excluded from the roadless rule. Another 2.5 million could be opened at some point, he acknowledged.
While challenged by the timber industry and other interests, the roadless rule was popular among thousands of people who sent comments to the Forest Service, agency officials have said. Most Alaskans who testified at public hearings spoke in favor of including the Tongass and the Chugach in the policy.
''We have never said rule making was a referendum,'' Rey said. ''The point of public comment is to inform us of what the public wants. But it's not a poll.''
If the roadless protections end up not applying to the Tongass, the logging industry expects about 250 million board feet of timber to become available, said Owen Graham, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association. Last year, the industry cut only about a tenth of that volume. About 50 timber sales in roadless areas are planned over the next decade, according to the Forest Service.
''We want to restore our industry over the next few years,'' Graham said. Only three medium-sized mills and a handful of smaller ones operate in the Tongass, employing about 650 people, he said.
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