(01-26) 04:00 PST Washington - --
More than 3 million acres in Alaska's Tongass National Forest would be open to logging under a federal plan that supporters believe will revive the state's struggling timber industry. Environmentalists, however, fear that the proposal will devastate the forest.
The Bush administration on Friday released a management plan for the forest, the largest in the country at nearly 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.
At more than 26,000 square miles, the Tongass - often labeled the crown jewel in the national forest system - is larger than 10 states.
"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 the 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 - a threat also made by environmentalists.