USFS releases Chugach plan scoping report

The U.S. Forest Service is moving forward with revisions to its management plan for the Chugach National Forest.

The plan outlines strategies for managing the approximately 5.4 million-acre Chugach National Forest, which occupies the eastern part of the Kenai Peninsula and stretches eastward toward the Copper River Delta on Prince William Sound. Last updated in 2002, the U.S. Forest Service began a revision process in 2012, combining research on current use and environmental conditions with public input before developing an assessment on which to base any changes.

The Forest Service has to update its management plans at least every 15 years. In addition to the timeline, new requirements were added under the 2012 Planning Rule, which states that forest plans must provide for ecological sustainability and contribute to social and economic sustainability while considering public and scientific input, emphasizing water resources, land and water restoration, supporting biodiversity and providing for multiple uses.

A changing environment and public concern also led the Forest Service to start a revision for the Chugach National Forest plan, according to a scoping report released Wednesday.

“Revisions to the current forest plan will help the Forest Service manage and protect natural and cultural resources in anticipation of a clanging climate as well as identify expected changes in uses and benefits that would be derived from the national forest during the next 15 to 20 years,” a Wednesday press release from the U.S. Forest Service states.

Most of the 1,462 responses between December and February 2015 came from Alaska and California residents, including individuals, organizations, local governments, state and federal agencies and Alaska Native corporations.

Two Alaska Native corporations — Cook Inlet Region, Incorporated and Chugach Alaska Corporation — weighed in on the plan with concerns about access to the land for activities such as mining and logging, commercial fishing with set gillnets and asked the Forest Service to not seek to obtain any more land. The Chugach Alaska Corporation Board Chairman Sheri Buretta wrote in the corporation’s comments that the forest managers should prioritize economic sustainability in the new plan and include the small communities in the forest such as Chenega Bay, Tatitlek and Cordova.

“If promoting economic sustainability and opportunity for community was a priority — as it should be — there are many objectives, standards and guidelines that could be developed to achieve this desired condition,” Buretta wrote.

Both associations were also concerned about land ownership and their rights under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Benjamin Mohr, the surface estate manager for Cook Inlet Region, Incorporated, which owns approximately 1.3 million acres of land in Southcentral Alaska, wrote in the corporation’s comments that further wilderness designations could impact future Sterling Highway realignments, such as the Cooper Landing bypass the Alaska Department of Transportation is planning, and planned development for a joint visitor’s center and archaeological research center in the Kenai and Russian River confluence area.

Mohr also wrote that mining plays an important role in the forest and no areas should be withdrawn from mineral entry unless statutorily closed by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

“Much of the forest has yet to be adequately explored for its mineral values,” he wrote. “Closing an area to mineral entry forecloses future exploration and development opportunities and in turn closes economies of scale and support for exploration on CIRI lands.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game asked that the Forest Service defer to the state on hunting, fishing, trapping and wildlife viewing opportunity and work cooperatively on scientific research into wildlife, while the Alaska Department of Natural Resources asked for more collaboration on recreation access, recognition of mining claims, allowing for timber recovery from trees damaged by wildfire or spruce bark beetles, among other concerns.

A key source of contention has been the Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area, an approximately 2.1 million-acre wilderness study area in western Prince William Sound created in 1980. The 2002 Chugach Forest Plan recommended 1.4 million acres of the study area be designated as wilderness, which would exclude it from a number of development and recreation activities.

Multiple agencies and organizations wrote that no more areas should be designated wilderness, as Wild and Scenic River areas or other conservation designations, including Fish and Game, the Resource Development Council, timber industry organization the Alaska Forest Association and the Alaska Miners Association. However, others stood in support of more wilderness area, such as the Eyak Preservation Council, the National Outdoor Leadership School, the pro-quiet activities citizen group the Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition, the Missoula, Montana-based Wilderness Watch and conservation organization Gulf of Alaska Keeper, which focused on potential changes that would drop areas from wilderness consideration or lessen protections on the study area.

“…Such a policy change would open the land at question to mining, logging, industrial scale lodge building and other land-based activities that would forever change the pristine wilderness characteristics of (Prince William Sound),” wrote Chris Pallister, founder of Gulf of Alaska Keeper, in the organization’s comments. “It would damage commercial, subsistence and recreational fish and wildlife resources. In addition, nowhere have logging, mining and onshore development proved compatible with salmon.”

A wilderness designation requires an act of Congress. The Forest Service’s draft plan proposes continuing to manage the wilderness study area the way it has until Congress takes action.

The next step in the process is for the Forest Service to draft alternative plans in preparation for the development of a draft Environmental Impact Statement, which the agency expects should be finished in spring 2017. Public engagement will continue throughout the process, acording to a press release.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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