Bill would create extensive Chugach wilderness areas

Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2001

A Connecticut congresswoman introduced a bill Thursday that would designate more than half of Chugach National Forest as wilderness.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the Alaska Rain Forest Protection Act with 78 co-sponsors, said her press secretary, Ashley Westbrook. Of those, only one was a Republican. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, did not sign on.

The 5.6-million-acre Chugach National Forest stretches from the Kenai Peninsula to Kayak Island, east of Cordova.

On the Kenai Peninsula, the bill would designate 166,500 acres of wilderness surrounding the Resurrection Pass Trail and 100,200 acres of wilderness from Kenai Lake southwest to the Resurrection River.

It would designate 242,300 acres of wilderness east of the Seward Highway from Trail Lakes to Resurrection Bay. It would designate 42,200 acres of wilderness south of the Seward Highway near Silvertip, and 41,500 acres of wilderness between the Seward Highway and Turnagain Arm.

Logging would be banned within the new wilderness areas, as would developed campgrounds, large resorts, parking lots and new roads. Snowmachines would be allowed for traditional uses. The bill would close additional areas outside the wilderness areas to logging.

It also would protect parts of Tongass National Forest, expand Admiralty Island National Monument and designate 81 new wild and scenic rivers -- including the Russian, Snow and Kenai rivers, Palmer and Sixmile creeks.

"I think it's ridiculous," said Tadd Owens, director of the Resource Development Council for Alaska. "She's asking for 15 million acres of permanent protection to be placed in Alaska's Chugach and Tongass national forests. Connecticut is only 3.2 million acres."

The Chugach and Tongass forests have conducted extensive local planning efforts, Owens said.

"It seems odd that a congresswoman from Connecticut thinks she has a better idea than the people who participated in the planning effort here," he said.

He wondered whether DeLauro has ever even been to Alaska. Westbrook said DeLauro has not.

Owens said he does not expect DeLauro's bill to go far in the Republican-led House.

DeLauro said the bill would protect the two forests from special interest threats while guaranteeing all Americans access to "these great national treasures for generations to come."

She cited comments favoring a Clinton administration rule that bans most logging and road construction in 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas in U.S. national forests. An injunction prevented the Forest Service from implementing the rule.

"Over 2 million public comments were received asking to have Alaska's rain forest included in and protected by the roadless rule ... . Last year, 147 members of Congress signed a letter to President Clinton urging him to include the Tongass National Forest in the roadless rule. Unfortunately, the roadless rule is under siege by special interests and these Alaskan forests will need additional protection if they are to survive ...," DeLauro said.

DeLauro received 18,000 comments from Connecticut residents supporting the roadless rule. Westbrook said 12,000 Alaskans commented on the roadless rule, and 85 percent supported it.

Jody Sutton, who analyzes comments for the Forest Service, said 1.6 million Americans commented during development of the roadless rule, but the Forest Service tries to focus on issues, not numbers.

"We try hard to get people to understand that it's not a vote. When it comes to making decisions about what's best for the environment or best for the people, we try to look at the issues," she said.

Forest Service spokesperson Heidi Valetkevitch said the majority of comments did favor protecting roadless areas.

"We heard loud and clear that people were in favor of the Roadless Rule. We said we would implement it in May. Then we were enjoined," she said.

Stasia Sprenger, Chugach organizer for the Alaska Center for the Environment in Anchorage, said DeLauro's bill is based on public comments.

"Between comments for the Chugach plan and the roadless meetings, there's been a large public outcry for some wilderness in the Chugach National Forest," she said.

Though 98 percent of the Chugach forest would qualify as wilderness, it contains no designated wilderness. There is one wilderness study area, but that is mostly rock and ice, she said.

"What we're trying to do with this bill is encompass more than rock and ice, and include some of those thriving healthy ecosystems, such as the Copper River delta and areas of Prince William Sound," she said.

The new wilderness areas would protect prime habitat and recreation areas, she said.

Environmental groups said logging still would be allowed in existing roaded areas and on private lands within the national forests. That leaves more than a trillion board feet available for logging, said Brian McNitt of the Alaska Rainforest Campaign.

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