While our northern neighbors conceived the Canadian Boreal Forest Initiative, a bold new conservation plan for their pristine forests, the Bush administration conceived a bold new destruction plan to sell off our nation’s pristine rain forest. Just before Christmas, President Bush announced that he was eliminating protections for 9.6 million pristine acres in Alaska’s Tongass rain forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rain forest, and America’s largest national forest.
The Tongass is the crown jewel of America’s national forest system, one of the few places where there are relatively healthy populations of grizzly bears, black bears, whales, rare sitka deer, mountain goats, wolves and bald eagles. But now, these last pristine areas face imminent threats from Bush’s campaign contributors in the timber, mining and oil industries.
Just one of the smallest areas immediately impacted by Bush’s announcement illustrates the destructiveness of his proposal. In the 39,303-acre Gravina Roadless Area in central and south Gravina Island in the Gulf of Alaska, sensitive watersheds provide homes to rare wildlife.
Scientists believe that road building and logging could cause deer populations to plummet, exterminating the island’s only wolf pack. But it’s not only animals that would suffer from the impact of road building and logging. Gravina’s Bostwick Creek and Bostwick Inlet provide families on the nearby Metlakatla Indian Reservation with as much as 70 percent of their food, and the watershed is the area’s only source of the black seaweed used in traditional basket weaving. Recreational businesses in the nearby town of Ketchikan rely on hiking, fishing and hunting opportunities in the Gravina roadless area for income – activities that would be jeopardized by road building and clear-cuts.
Impacts like these are multiplied many times over in the much bigger areas affected by President Bush’s actions, like the 201,887-acre Eudora Roadless Area on Prince of Wales Island, and the 209,000-acre South Kupreanof Roadless Area, famous for its bald eagles, goshawks and other avian predators – all threatened by the loss of habitat, soil erosion, wildfires and pollution that accompany road building and logging.
Perhaps the most outrageous thing about Bush’s decision is that it means that taxpayers in Maine will be footing the bill for this destruction of our country’s last pristine forests. That’s because American taxpayers finance the roads that the timber, mining and oil companies tear through these last pristine areas.
According to a recent report by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, taxpayers lose up to $35 million every single year underwriting road building and clear-cut logging in the Tongass National Forest. In 2002, the Bush administration spent more than $36 million preparing Tongass logging projects and logging roads but took in only $1.2 million in revenues.
One reason these deficits are so high is that President Bush’s Forest Service is protecting logging companies from common free market practices like competitive bidding. Seventy percent of timber sales in the Tongass were closed after the service received two or fewer bids – 30 percent were closed after only one bid.
Unlike most private logging roads here in Maine, Tongass roads – which lie on public lands – in many cases are often declared off limits to everyone except logging company employees once they’re built. If the Bush administration builds a road on or near a parcel of public land that you’re used to hiking, hunting or fishing on, you’re very likely to be out of luck.
Keeping Tongass roadless areas pristine is critical for the economic vitality of southeast Alaska. Recreation, tourism and fisheries – which depend on pristine roadless areas and the clean water they provide – generate more than 8,000 jobs, more than 90 percent of the total jobs supported by the Tongass National Forest.
Because Tongass roadless areas are so rare, so majestic, and play such an important role in the Alaskan economy, even major corporate forest product users have spoken against President Bush’s plans to devastate the Tongass. Office products giant Staples, homebuilder K.B. homes and lumber supplier Hayward Lumber joined more than 250,000 Americans in submitting comments opposing any weakening of protections for Tongass roadless areas. About the only people advocating eliminating Tongass protections are extremist elements of the timber, mining and oil industries – but unfortunately, it is those extremists that Bush is listening to, in part because they have supplied tens of millions of dollars in donations for his campaigns.
As if eliminating pristine forest protections in the Tongass isn’t bad enough, President Bush is even considering weakening protections for roadless areas in the Lower 48 next year, including 6,000 acres in the Maine portion of the White Mountain National Forest. Instead of lavishing yet another gift on the timber industry, the Bush administration should give a lasting gift to future generations of Americans by protecting our last wild forests.
Matthew Davis is an advocate for Environment Maine, the statewide environmental advocacy group working for clean air, clean water and open spaces, through nonprofit, nonpartisan research, advocacy, outreach and organizing.