Wilderness proposed in Chugach forest

ANCHORAGE -- The U.S. Forest Service is recommending that 1.4 million acres of Alaska’s Chugach National Forest be set aside as wilderness. But environmental groups weren’t pleased that none of the proposed wilderness is in the Copper River Delta near Cordova.

The proposal came to light May 16 when the federal agency inadvertently posted a news release on its Internet site that said the Forest Service will ask Congress to protect a quarter of the 5.4-million-acre Chugach from logging, road-building, mining and other activities.

The proposed wilderness area is around Prince William Sound. It marks the first wilderness recommendation by the Forest Service in more than a decade, the agency said.

The forest currently has no areas congressionally designated as wilderness, which would put most development activities off limits.

"The public has an overwhelming desire to keep the forest as it is today, wild in character," wrote Denny Bschor, Alaska Regional Forester.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, welcomed the proposal. He said it creates new bear habitat conservation areas on the Kenai Peninsula and protects special areas while observing the spirit and letter of the "no-more" clause inserted into the Alaska Lands Act specifically to protect Alaskans from more administrative land withdrawals.

The plan permits the current 1.8 million board feet level of yearly timber harvest to continue, Murkowski noted.

"Given the danger of wildfire on the Kenai due to the spruce bark beetle infestation, it is important that this plan provides the flexibility to improve forest health while protecting the unique areas of Prince William Sound that Congress had previously set aside for study as potential wilderness," he said.

Environmentalists jumped all over the Forest Service’s plan, saying it fails to protect the biologically important Copper River Delta.

"I’m angry. It seems like the public process has been ignored," said Jim Adams, lawyer for National Wildlife Federation in Anchorage.

Adams said thousands of public comments poured into the Forest Service, the majority expressing support for wilderness in the Copper River Delta, on the Kenai Peninsula and along the coast of Prince William Sound.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, Wilderness Society assistant regional director in Alaska, was also disappointed with the area the Forest Service is recommending for wilderness designation.

"A good portion of it will be rock, ice, mud and sand," she said.

Whittington-Evans said she supports the Forest Service’s decision to reduce the amount of Chugach on the Kenai that’s open for motorized use to 82 percent.

05/26/2002 - 8:00pm