Chugach plans aim to preserve forest

Posted: Wednesday, November 15, 2000

It appears the Chugach National Forest will remain roadless.

There is little difference -- for the Kenai Peninsula, at least -- between the president's proposed Roadless Area Conservation Plan for U.S. national forests and the proposed Chugach National Forest management plan.

Whether that is good or bad depends on your perspective.

"Obviously, it's the intent of this administration to make the Chugach what amounts to a park status," said Jack Phelps, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, which represents the logging industry. "That's pretty much what the preferred alternative (for Chugach management) is saying. That's reflected in the Roadless plan as well."

Mike Kania, Seward District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, said the proposed Chugach plan would put most of the Kenai Peninsula off limits to road construction and logging, as would the Roadless proposal.

But really, the Roadless proposal puts a little more of the peninsula off limits to road construction and logging, said Michelle Wilson, Chugach program coordinator for the Alaska Center for the Environment.

By her thinking, that is good.

The Chugach plan would designate most of the peninsula's national forest as "backcountry," where new road construction and commercial logging would be banned. However, it would designate some areas -- primarily along the major highways and near Cooper Landing, Moose Pass and Hope -- to be managed for "fish, wildlife and recreation."

In those areas, some road construction and logging would be allowed. It also would designate other areas, particularly around Hope, to be managed for "forest restoration." Road construction and logging would be allowed in those areas, too.

However, nearly all national forest lands on the Kenai Peninsula are inventoried roadless areas. The preferred alternative for the Roadless initiative prohibits road construction, reconstruction and timber harvest in inventoried roadless areas except where necessary for forest stewardship.

"You could probably just build roads within a half-mile of existing roads," Kania said.

Beyond that half-mile, the opportunity to build roads and log generally would disappear, even in areas the proposed Chugach plan designates for forest restoration and management for fish, wildlife and recreation.

"That would probably be the biggest effect on the plan," he said.

The Roadless proposal does allow some exceptions.

Stewardship logging would be allowed in order to improve habitat for threatened, endangered or sensitive species, to reduce the risk of wildfire or to restore the ecology of an area. Construction of fire lines and fire suppression also would be allowed. Hazardous trees could be cut, and trees could be cut for trail construction.

Road construction to improve safety would be allowed, as would Federal Aid Highway projects, so long as the Secretary of Agriculture determines that those are in the public interest or are consistent with the purposes for which the land was reserved or acquired, and that there are no feasible alternatives. The Roadless proposal seemingly leaves the door open for the proposed rerouting of the Sterling Highway by Cooper Landing, Kania said.

Wilson praised the Roadless proposal.

"It would be good, because it would protect more areas of the Kenai Peninsula that wouldn't be protected under the preferred alternative (for the Chugach plan)," she said.

Many Kenai Peninsula visitors want to visit wilderness areas, she said, but the proposed Chugach plan does not recommend any areas of the Kenai Peninsula for designation as wilderness. In the Lower 48, wilderness areas often border roads, she said.

"In Tongass National Forest, you can go to Admiralty Island or several other areas to find wilderness," she said. "In Chugach National Forest, you can't find accessible wilderness on the Kenai Peninsula. By boat or kayak from Whittier, you would have to go beyond the 30-mile radius."

That is a long way to paddle, she said.

On top of that, she said, more than half the wilderness designations the proposed Chugach plan does recommend are rock and ice, not vegetated wilderness. So the added protections in the Roadless proposal are good, she said.

The Forest Service presented its environmental impact statement and preferred alternative for the Roadless proposal Monday to Dan Glickman, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Chugach National Forest spokesperson Doug Stockdale said Glickman must wait 30 days before picking a final plan. He could choose the preferred alternative, one of the others analyzed in the environmental impact statement or a final plan drawing from several of the alternatives.

Glickman probably will finalize a Roadless plan before the new Chugach plan is finished, Stockdale said. If he adopts the preferred alternative, the Forest Service will have to amend or supplement the Chugach plan to make it consistent.

Phelps said many people who would be affected by the Roadless proposal are considering whether to challenge it, he said.

"They're taking the view that the Chugach is going to be a wildlife and recreation forest and not an active forest for snowmachiners, miners and the timber industry," Phelps countered. "I think the Roadless initiative, for Alaska, clearly violates the intent of Congress."

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act clearly says there will be no more conservation units created by administrative action, he said. New conservation units must be created by Congress.

However, the Clinton Admini-stration made challenges difficult by asking Glickman to pick the final plan.

"That means there is no administrative appeal available, which means the only place you can challenge it is in court," Phelps said. "It was their intent to make it so there wasn't an appeal opportunity in the administrative process."

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