Former Gov. Wally Hickel once famously referred to Prince William Sound as a world-class water wonderland. It is, indeed, for thousands of Alaskans, and for the tens of thousands more who visit each year to see its tidewater glaciers, whales, seals, seabirds, and snow-capped mountains. It's a wondrous place of unparalleled beauty, quintessential Alaska.

In the 30 years I've spent time in the Sound, I've watched a tourism economy grow and thrive. For even longer, the Sound has supported commercial fisheries, and even longer than that, Alaska Native subsistence communities. It's important culturally, economically, recreationally and ecologically. It's a vital part of the Alaska that keeps many of us here, through the driving rains of summer and the long dark cold of winter.

But our wonderland is in trouble, deep trouble. In 1980, a 2-million-acre piece of the 5.5-million-acre Chugach National Forest was designated the Nellie Juan College Fjord Wilderness Study Area (WSA). This corner of the northwestern Sound is by far the most visited. The Forest Service was given responsibility to manage this WSA as wilderness until such time as Congress made a permanent designation. For decades, it appeared that it did. But in recent years, it clearly has not.

When I first explored Blackstone Bay by Zodiac in 1986, we saw no other boats or people. The beaches we camped on showed no signs of any previous campers. Now, however, Blackstone has become so crowded that boaters vie for camping beaches.

Since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill brought international fame to Prince William Sound, and since the Anton Anderson Tunnel road opened in 2000, increasing numbers of people crowd to the western Sound. Unfortunately, rather than step up their statutory responsibility to protect the very wilderness qualities of Prince William Sound that people flock to experience, the Forest Service has instead become increasingly lax and inept in their protection, especially of the federally designated WSA.

As a consequence, the Sound has suffered. Those of us who have known this place for decades have watched as black bears have virtually disappeared due to overhunting, dozens of camping beaches and cabin areas have been clear cut for campsites and firewood; industrial developments such as communications towers have sprung up; shorelines are littered and eroded by overuse; mink populations are trapped out on several islands; snowmachine use has increased in fragile wilderness areas; and the threat of large-scale mining looms.

Now is the time to speak out to protect what it is we appreciate about Prince William Sound, to maintain the very characteristics that draw us there again and again, despite the persistent and often driving rain. The Forest Service has released its draft revised management plan for the Chugach National Forest and is accepting public comment through Feb. 19. This is important: This plan will guide actions in the entire Chugach National Forest for the next 10-20 years.

This is a critical time in the Sound's long history. Not only is it still struggling to recover from the oil spill, but it is also now struggling to deal with the increasing effects of climate change. Several species harmed by the spill have not yet recovered, oil lingers in beaches, and now, with a changing ocean and climate, fish, seabirds and marine animals are declining. The recent sudden die-off of hundreds of common murres, found emaciated on the beaches of the Sound, is a sign of just how dire the situation is. The least we can do is not make it worse.

If the oil spill taught us anything, it's that oil and water don't mix, but oceans and forests do: Salmon need forests, trees need fish. What the Forest Service does on land affects what happens in the water.

One would think the Forest Service would take the opportunity of this plan revision to remedy these problems and improve protective management. In fact, they're doing the opposite: They're using the revision to legitimize their mismanagement. They have hidden the ball well, but here's the gist: they are changing the language so that they no longer have to manage the WSA as wilderness, and they are neglecting to recommend wilderness designation to many of the most wild places in the Sound, including upper Columbia Bay, Glacier Island, Lake Nellie Juan, Knight Island and West Port Wells.

The removal of these wilderness areas is completely unwarranted. Consider Knight Island, which took the brunt of the oil spill. I spent a week last summer kayaking its western shore. We didn't see another camper or kayak until we arrived at our pickup beach. I've been kayaking in the Sound for nearly three decades, and it's been a dozen years since I've experienced such wilderness solitude. Yet the Forest Service neglects to include Knight for wilderness designation.

It's a travesty, a complete disregard for their responsibility to the public they serve. They are trying to steamroll through a plan that would simply make their jobs easier by requiring much less protection.

I know the Forest Service has a mandate to manage the forest as a "land of many uses." But if this plan goes through as is, then the Chugach will be managed as a "land of many abuses," and existing sustainable uses -- wilderness recreation, fishing and subsistence -- will be compromised. We will all lose this world-class water wonderland. Who wants to pay a water taxi hundreds of dollars only to be dropped off at a clear-cut area next to a communications tower next to a mine?

So, if you depend on the Sound for your livelihood, or if you just like to take a boat into the Sound -- be it kayak or yacht -- and drop a line for a fish, or walk the beaches or sit in front of a tidewater glacier and watch it calve, then tell the Forest Service enough is enough: safeguard this wonderland now.

Marybeth Holleman is author of "Heart of the Sound," among other works. She lives in Anchorage. marybethholleman.com

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