|ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The Bush administration opened up undeveloped areas of the largest U.S. national forest to logging on Tuesday, scrapping a Clinton-era rule aimed at protecting the wilderness.|
The U.S. Forest Service announced that it will exempt the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska from a national rule prohibiting timber cutting in roadless areas.
The decision means about 300,000 acres of dense, old-growth rain forest will be available for logging.
The forest covers nearly 17 million acres.
Timber industry supporters said it would help revitalize a regional timber industry that has faltered since the area\'s two pulp mills closed in the 1990s.
\"We welcome this good news, coming as it has at Christmas time, as a boost to the people and communities of Southeast,\" Gov. Frank Murkowski said in a news release. \"This was a vital step in our plan to rebuild the Southeast timber industry. The Tongass should again support a vibrant timber industry.\"
Environmentalists portrayed the policy change as a violation of public trust. They said the road-building likely to accompany the new logging could affect 2.5 million acres of the forest.
\"The Bush administration has turned its back on the public, good science and the law in its effort to clearcut the Tongass,\" Tom Waldo, a Juneau-based attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, said in a news release.
\"This is obviously a Christmas present from the Bush administration to the timber industry, which wants the right to clearcut in America\'s greatest temperate rainforest.\"
The Tongass sprawls over spruce- and hemlock-covered islands, rain-drenched coastline, mountains and glaciers. It has long been the subject of debate between environmental and timber-industry interests.
Although parts of the forest have been heavily logged, the remainder is considered North America\'s last major old-growth temperate rain forest.
The old-growth trees are prized by environmentalists, fishermen and hunters for their contribution to the natural habitat, but also by loggers for their commercial value.
The two sides disagree about the effect of roads on the forest. Environmentalists say they damage the habitat, while development advocates say they allow local residents better access to the forest for a variety of uses.
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE