EACH YEAR, taxpayers generously subsidize the work the US Forest Service does for timber companies in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. All of the surveying, road building, and administrative work exceeds revenues paid to the government by the companies by $30 million to $35 million a year. That's $170,000 for each timber job each year.
Now the Bush administration has opened up even more of the 16.8 million-acre national forest to this form of corporate welfare. The Clinton administration had included 9 million acres of the Tongass among the 58.5 million acres of national forest lands set aside as "roadless." Late in December the Bush administration ended that protection for the 9 million Tongass acres and made 300,000 acres available for clear-cut timber sales. Congress should make the Clinton roadless rule a law to stop this circumvention.
The Tongass National Forest, in southeastern Alaska, is the country's largest national forest and the most intact temperate rain forest in the world. The roadless protection called for by the Clinton administration came after an extended process of planning, public hearings, and more than 2 million public comments, the vast majority of which favored keeping much of the Tongass and its centuries-old trees unspoiled. The Tongass is crucial habitat to grizzly bears, wolves, wild salmon, bald eagles, and other species that are increasingly rare elsewhere in the country.
Loggers already have access to more than their share of the forest, which has 5,000 miles of logging roads. Opening up the roadless area would give them access to high-profit old-growth trees, the same sections favored by many forms of wildlife.
Due to competition from timbering in the tree farms of the American South and elsewhere in the world, the logging business in the Tongass has shrunk in recent years. Last month the Forest Service said it would allow timber companies to back out of sales they had committed to previously because they would be uneconomic now.
The Forest Service, led by a former timber industry lobbyist, Mark Rey, is trying to breathe new life into this industry by giving it access to prime old-growth woods and millions of dollars in road-building subsidies. This is the kind of special-interest giveaway that should upset Republican fiscal watchdogs as much as it does environmentalists.
But deficit fighters have been powerless against the influence of Rey and Alaska's pro-timber senator, Ted Stevens, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Last year Stevens even got Congress to pass a provision exempting Tongass timber companies from paying any penalties when they back out of sales they fear will not yield enough profit. Making the roadless rule a law would save taxpayers' money and protect an invaluable natural resource.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.