The Bush administration ruled Friday that it will not provide wilderness protection to millions of acres of Alaska's Tongass National Forest.
The decision by the U.S. Forest Service formally affirms a recommendation it had made in May, rebuffing an effort by environmentalists to limit logging. Environmental groups said the decision could open more than 1 million acres of old-growth forest to logging, particularly if the administration or federal courts reverse the Clinton administration's restrictions on forest road building.
The Forest Service said only 676,000 acres could be opened to logging under any circumstance.
Denny Bschor, regional forester for Alaska, issued a "record of decision" that "recommends no more wilderness" be designated in the Tongass. Bschor said in a statement that "this plan will provide an economical supply of timber" using 4% of the Tongass' 16.8 million acres.
Conservation groups said the ruling would dramatically expand logging in the Alaskan forest if President Clinton's roadless rule is undone, as they expect. The Clinton rule would have prevented almost all logging in the Tongass, which contains nearly 30% of the world's unlogged coastal temperate rain forest. Congress has already set aside 6.4 million acres of the Tongass as wilderness, leaving about 9.5 million acres in dispute, of which only 1 or 2 million acres are commercially usable.
Pamela Finney, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said that under no circumstance would there be logging on acres other than the 676,000 already designated, a "big chunk" of which is inaccessible because of the roadless rule.