JUNEAU (AP) -- Including the Tongass National Forest in the ban on logging in roadless areas in 2004 would cut the forest's annual timber harvest by about two-thirds, the Forest Service said Monday.
Meanwhile, environmentalists said delaying the forest's inclusion would result in thousands of acres of clear-cuts and could spark a return to economic dependence on logging.
Under the updated protection plan announced Monday, 8.5 million acres in the Tongass would be included in 2004 in a policy that prohibits road-building; bans logging except when such activity is deemed to help maintain or improve areas; seeks to improve habitats for threatened, endangered or sensitive species; and attempts to reduce the risk of severe wildfires.
A draft of the plan in May delayed the decision on whether to include the forest until 2004. Administration officials cited an avalanche of public comments in favor of a broader ban.
The Forest Service plans to offer about 153 million board feet of timber annually -- including about 102 million board feet from roadless areas -- between now and 2004, said Mike Weber, a public affairs officer for the Tongass National Forest in Sitka.
Without the roadless areas, the harvest would drop to between 50 million and 55 million board feet, Weber said.
''We couldn't make up the difference on areas outside of roadless areas,'' Weber said. ''We've been in those areas before and harvested them.''
The Forest Service estimates the market demand for Tongass timber at between 100 million and 205 million board feet annually.
A potential decline in timber supply is bad news for companies trying to revive Southeast Alaska's timber industry, which has suffered under drastic cutbacks since the 1980s.
''What financial institution is going to lend me money to improve value-added processing when I have to tell him that two-thirds of my supply is likely to be gone three years from now?'' asked Jack Phelps, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association.
A new veneer plan in Ketchikan was scheduled to launch this year at the site of a closed pulp mill. The plant would peel and slice old-growth trees from the Tongass into green veneer, which would be barged south for drying and manufacture into finished products such as plywood.
For environmentalists opposed to logging on the Tongass, Monday's announcement was an improvement, but only a small one.
''There's still no reason to discriminate against the nation's largest and most ecologically important forest,'' said Matt Zencey, manager of the Alaska Rainforest Campaign. ''The realities are that a lot of damage can happen in four years.''
Delaying the inclusion of the plan, environmentalists argued, would not only allow thousands of acres to be logged in roadless areas, but would allow political pressure to build to maintain a steady supply of wood for businesses such as the Ketchikan veneer plant.
''It's just going to be that much more difficult to make the transition away from managing the Tongass for timber if you wait that long,'' said Buck Lindekugel, conservation director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in Juneau.
Logging in roadless areas would not necessarily stop in the Tongass in 2004, however. Timber contracts typically run for three years, so a contract sold in late 2003 could be active until late in 2006.
Monday's announcement is the next-to-last step in the process for crafting a roadless rule without the involvement of Congress. Agency officials will decide whether to make still more changes before they publish a final rule in mid-December, just a month before President Clinton leaves office.
Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, who has argued that including the Tongass in the roadless ban, would violate the Tongass Land Management Plan adopted last year, was upbeat about Monday's announcement. He noted that there will be a different administration with a different Secretary of Agriculture in charge of the Forest Service in four years.
''If they were to make it effective now, that would be a great concern,'' Knowles said. ''The decision to exempt it for the next four years is a plus.''
Alaska's Congressional delegation condemned the move and accused the administration of bad faith.
''This is an outrageous exercise of arbitrary decision making,'' said Sen. Frank Murkowski. ''They are circumventing the regular forest planning process.''
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