More than 3 million acres in Alaska's Tongass National Forest would be open to logging under a U.S. government plan that supporters believe will revive the state's timber industry.
Environmentalists, however, fear that the proposal will devastate the forest.
The Bush administration released Friday a management plan for the forest, the largest in the U.S. at nearly at 17 million acres. The plan would leave about 3.4 million acres open to logging, road building and other development, including about 2.4 million acres that are now remote and roadless. About 663,000 acres are in areas considered most valuable for timber production.
Alaska Regional Forester Denny Bschor, who approved the Tongass management plan, said its goals are to sustain the diversity and health of the forest, provide livelihoods and subsistence for Alaska residents and ensure a source of recreation and solitude for forest visitors.
"There may be disappointment that the (allowable timber sales) hasn't increased or diminished, depending on your viewpoint," Bschor said in a statement. "What is significant in the amended plan, however, is our commitment to the state of Alaska to provide an economic timber sale program which will allow the current industry to stabilize, and for an integrated timber industry to become established."
Environmentalists said the plan continues a Bush administration policy of catering to the timber industry.
"The new plan suffers from the same central problem as old plan. It leaves 2.4 million acres of wild, roadless backcountry areas open to clear cutting and new logging roads," said Tom Waldo, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.
The Alaska Forest Association, an industry group, said the plan fell short of industry's needs. If necessary, the group said, it will challenge the plan in court, which environmentalists already have threatened.
"It is critical that the final plan ... allows our industry to survive," said Owen Graham, the timber group's executive director. "Survival means returning to a realistic timber supply level in southeast Alaska, not a continuation of the starvation level we have been struggling with for the last few years."
The new plan stems from a series of lawsuits filed by environmental groups in 2003 that have since shifted the Forest Service's timber sale program away from roadless areas to land that can be reached by roads that meander for 3,700 miles through the southeast Alaska forest.
In 2005, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a 2003 plan on grounds that the Forest Service had mistakenly doubled the volume of timber needed to supply local sawmills and failed to consider better protections for roadless areas.