Alaska Becomes Test of Wills On Federal Land Policy
ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — SUDDENLY, Alaska is again the spoils in a national debate over land policy. Unlike the campaigns of the 1970s and '80s, the new initiatives promote resource extraction, not conservation, in Alaska's rain forest and on the tundra. The outcome will help determine how far the Republican-led Congress can go in readjusting the balance between environmental and development interests. The push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling has already been gaining momentum. Now Alaska's all-GOP congressional delegation is seeking new laws to force increased logging in the Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest. Both ANWR and Tongass were subjects of emotional battles in decades past. The Alaska National Interest Lands Act of 1980, the largest US conservation act ever, designated 106 million acres as protected units - including parks, wildlife refuges, and national monuments - from the southeast panhandle to the Arctic coastline. The 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act established 1 million acres of wilderness, imposed new conservation measures, and cut subsidies to the two companies holding long-term contracts for Tongass wood. SINCE 1990, mills have closed and roughly 1,000 southeastern Alaskan timber jobs have vanished, according to the Alaska Department of Labor. Alaska's US senators blame the industry's troubles on the Clinton administration, which emphasizes habitat protection more and logging less than did the administration of President Bush. ''The new [Clinton] administration changed the objectives of the Tongass. They put biologists in charge of the Forest Service,'' said Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska in an Aug. 17 news conference. ''This new group ... has just gone wild.'' Now the senators are trying to boost logging in the Tongass through two types to legislation. Senator Stevens, a member of the Appropriations Committee, is pushing an appropriations package that would forbid the Forest Service from spending money in the coming fiscal year in the Tongass for anything other than a plan that includes a 418 million-board-feet harvest - the harvest targeted by the Forest Service in 1991. Sen. Frank Murkowski (R), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has introduced a companion bill to overhaul the Tongass Timber Reform Act. His bill directs the Forest Service to free up enough timber to produce 2,400 jobs. The Murkowski bill was met with a storm of opposition, most notably from Gov. Tony Knowles (D). The bill ''exalts timber-related jobs over all other jobs,'' he says, jeopardizing the area's thriving fishing and tourism industries and precluding preventative measures to protect habitat. Murkowski termed the opposition as driven by ''misunderstandings.'' He promised to revise his bill based on board- feet goals, rather than on jobs. Despite the timber industry's troubles, the region's overall economy is healthy, with a 3.7 percent jobs increase since 1990, says Knowles. A third of the area's timber jobs are held by non-Alaskans. Logging advocates say these numbers are technically correct but skewed by a boom in white-collar Juneau. The region's mills need 440 million board feet a year to operate at capacity, but the Forest Service plans to release only 278 million board feet, says Chris Gates, head of the Alaska Forest Association. ''We're just in a desperate situation, and we're not getting much help from the Forest Service.'' On a mid-August tour of southeast Alaska, Murkowski got a mixed response to his Tongass initiative. In Ketchikan, site of the still-operating Ketchikan Pulp Company mill, Murkowski was welcomed with supportive signs and outdoor demonstrations. Most of the testimony at a workshop supported his bill. In Sitka, 90 percent of the testimony opposed the senator's bill. The city's unemployment rate is relatively low, and some Sitkans say they are disenchanted with the timber industry. Local Tlingit Indian leader Mark Jacobs said he used to favor timber harvests to fuel the Sitka mill. ''But now, after I saw the pulp pollution, I changed my mind,'' he said.