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By Rose Ragsdale
For Mining News 

Mining at stake in Tongass timber battle

State of Alaska, miners respond to Forest Service call for public comments on latest land management plan for national forest


Last updated 5/27/2007 at Noon

Though environmentalists appear to be fighting to curtail logging in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, the stakes are much bigger, according to concerned Alaskans.

The battle currently being waged in and out of the courts is actually aimed at stopping all resource development within the 16 million-acre forest, they say.

"The opposition to the Tongass is focused on cutting the trees," said Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association. "But as soon as logging is dead, they will refocus on the mining industry. The environmentalists' purpose is to stop all development in the Tongass. Their objective is clear. They want to eliminate all commercial activity in the Tongass."

If that happens, Borell and others worry that Southeast Alaska no longer would be able to sustain a viable economy.

The U.S. Forest Service, the federal agency charged with managing the resources of the Tongass, is picking its way through a quagmire of potential pitfalls in hopes of establishing an approach that will be acceptable to all parties involved.

The agency completed a public comment period April 30 for the latest version of its much-challenged Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

No preferred alternative

In the TLMP-EIS, the Forest Service offered seven alternative approaches for managing development in the Tongass without expressing a preference.

"The Draft EIS does not identify a preferred alternative because the Forest Service is seeking public input to help make a more informed choice," the agency explained in publicizing its plans. "A number of factors must be considered to find a balance among the many competing needs and desires for Tongass resources."

The Forest Service said the main challenge it faces in selecting an alternative is finding the best way to address three focus issues - protecting high-value roadless areas for tourism and recreation; ensuring an adequate timber supply for the market and the economy; and protecting the wildlife habitat and biodiversity of the forest.

Since the federal agency last revised its management plan in 1997, it has responded to 33 appeals and litigation on the processes used to create the strategy.

The current draft EIS primarily responds to a recent decision issued by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (Natural Resource Defense Council et al., v. United States Forest Service, et al., 421 F.3d 797), which found inadequacies in the process used to develop the 1997 TLMP. This EIS also responds to findings of the recently completed Tongass Forest Plan Five-Year Review.

"One key aspect is how best to incorporate the 1997 Forest Plan Conservation Strategy into a selected alternative that also supports community economic vitality, through a more integrated timber industry, while minimizing effects on other uses. Another aspect is the need to maintain an available land base large enough to meet timber demand if it develops over time. One approach would be to develop a phased implementation strategy that focuses timber harvest primarily in the (areas with roads), with expansion into roadless areas only if demand increases," the Forest Service said.

Alaska favors phased approach

The State of Alaska and the Alaska Miners Association joined others in submitting comments.

Gov. Sarah Palin, writing on behalf of all three state agencies with responsibilities that affect management of the Tongass, cited four policy guidelines that the state used in crafting combined comments for the Alaska departments of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development; Fish and Game; and Natural Resources.

The guidelines emphasize the state's support for a vibrant and sustainable timber industry in Southeast Alaska as part of a diversified economy; commitment to sound conservation based on science; desire for changes to the Tongass Land Management Plan to be implemented in a timely fashion with minimal litigation exposure; and support for the efforts of the Tongass Futures Roundtable.

"Overall, we seek to balance protection of fish and wildlife resources, tourism and recreation activities, and development of timber and minerals within the Tongass National Forest," Palin said, introducing more than 35 pages of detailed recommendations.

The State of Alaska recommended a three-phase strategy that would quickly stabilize timber supply, protect fish and wildlife resources, and provide time for the Tongass Futures Roundtable to develop consensus recommendations.

"Throughout implementation of the strategy, we also support development of other commercial and personal uses of the forest such as recreation, tourism, subsistence, commercial fishing and mining," Palin said.

The Forest Service is expected to make a decision in September, she added.

Miners lean toward Alternative 7

The Alaska Miners Association, meanwhile, endorsed Alternative 7, with some changes, as being the best approach for mining and timber resource development.

Alternative 7, the most development-friendly of the Forest Service proposals, would keep 61 percent of identified roadless areas in the Tongass in a natural condition; provide for sufficient timber to meet demand in 2020 under all four scenarios envisioned by the Forest Service; and after 100-plus years, 76 percent of the original productive old growth forest would remain. This alternative also would employ no conservation strategy and would affect four critical landscape pinch-points.

Alternative 1, at the other end of the spectrum, would keep 99 percent of identified roadless areas in a natural condition; would not provide sufficient timber in 2020 under any scenario; and after 100-plus years, 88 percent of the original productive old growth forest would remain. Alternative 1 also keeps a conservation strategy and has no major effect on landscape pinch-points.

Effects of alternatives 2-6 range in between.

Among changes sought by the miners to Alternative 7:

• No additional restrictions or decreases in the amount of land or water available for logging, mining, tourism, and commercial fishing;

• Everything possible done to increase opportunities for resource jobs;

• A guaranteed harvest level of at least 360 million board feet per year and a 1.5 million-acre timber base; and,

• A maximum area kept open to mineral entry with no added restrictions. (For example, the Old Growth limited use designation around the Niblack copper-gold-zinc-silver deposit on Prince of Wales Island should be changed to a modified landscape LUD with minerals LUD overlay, the miners group said.)

The Alaska Miners also told the Forest Service that the TLMP-EIS failed to evaluate its alternatives for compliance with the Mining and Mineral Policy Act of 1970, and observed that mineral deposits are rare and can only be developed where they occur.

"Nothing should be allowed that will impact the known and potential mineral areas," the group added.


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