One of the privileges of living in Southcentral Alaska is the proximity to Prince William Sound. At the heart of the Chugach National Forest, the Sound is a vast landscape of remote islands, ancient rainforest, wild salmon and towering glaciers and mountains. It is a recreational and ecological jewel and an economic engine for the region.
Today, as the Chugach National Forest revises its management plan, those who love the Sound have an important opportunity to contribute to its care. The revision now underway only occurs every 15 years, so today's decisions have lasting impact.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service's proposed plan would significantly weaken the Sound's protections that have been in place for over a generation. With vague language, it creates confusion about area management. This comes as the agency's reports state the area faces increased pressure and would benefit from clearer management. It also contradicts a 1994 Exxon Valdez oil spill recovery plan's goals to protect the area's habitat, conservation, and wilderness values.
It's helpful to review some the Sound's history. In 1980, Congress set aside about 2 million acres in the western Sound as the Nellie Juan-College Fiord Wilderness Study Area. The purpose was to consider the area for permanent protection, which was widely supported.
In the early 1980s, the Forest Service responded to this interim designation by committing to preserve the area's wilderness character until Congress determines whether to finalize protections. The agency chose to model management after the 1964 Wilderness Act and provisions of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conversation Act.
Under those models, codified in the Forest Service's Alaska region policy, the agency promised to leave the western Sound largely undeveloped, and allow its ecological processes to unfold naturally. It also assured a largely nonmotorized environment to protect habitat, scenery and solitude while honoring ANILCA provisions that allow airplanes, boats and snowmachines for "traditional activities."
For over three decades, this balanced approach has protected priceless opportunities for subsistence, fishing, hunting, camping, kayaking, hiking and much more. It has protected the salmon habitat that fuels the Sound's commercial fishery. It has supported a booming recreation and tourism industry, evidenced by the water taxis, tour boats, kayak rentals, kayak tours, hunting charters, and personal vessels seen any summer day in Whittier and Valdez.
In the Sound we have long-standing protections that carry ecological and economic value. With almost no one complaining, the Forest Service's task should be simple: don't fix what ain't broke.
But instead, the agency proposes weakening protections. It proposes allowing personal-use timber harvests and new projects that manipulate soils, watersheds and habitat, with almost no standards or guidelines. It removes Forest Service regional policy and adopts vague language that may encourage more motorized use and development.
The changes would threaten the area's current character, which already faces pressure. By the Forest Service's own account, visitation has ballooned since the 2000 opening of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel in Whittier tunnel. Those familiar with the Sound's idyllic beaches and anchorages see the increased litter, impacted campsites, unauthorized structures, crowding and widespread recreational use of chainsaws to senselessly fell trees for camp furniture or bonfires. Meanwhile, the state has allowed significant overhunting of black bears.
Add to this what the Forest Service has authorized, including construction of hatcheries and communication sites and steady mineral exploration, even though the Sound's economy rests in fishing, recreation and tourism. Under an extremely liberal reading of ANILCA, the agency may allow unlimited growth in snowmachines. It rarely enforces its own rules limiting chainsaws and other motorized equipment. It has even recently allowed U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife services to kill most of the mink on Naked Island, hoping to possibly increase bird populations hurt by the 1989 spill.
Furthermore, the Forest Service currently recommends Congress remove today's protections from some of the Sound's most recreationally and ecologically valuable areas. They include Columbia Glacier, Port Wells, Lake Nellie Juan and Knight, Culross, Esther, Perry, Glacier islands. The reasoning includes allowing mining, helicopter skiing/hiking, and tourism development (USFS 2002 record of decision, page 16).
Today, the Forest Service needs to hear support for current protections. Instead of jeopardizing recreational and economic uses, it should:
Recommit to the long-standing Alaska Region policy to preserve the area's wilderness character, with clear language to leave it undeveloped, untrammeled and nonmotorized (boats, airplanes and snowmachines traffic would continue under ANILCA's "traditional activities").
Follow the 1994 Exxon Valdez oil spill recovery plan's goals to restore the Sound's recreation, wilderness and conservation values.
Recommend Congress permanently protect Knight Island and the rest of the wilderness study area to secure today's protections for the future;
Recommend purchase of subsurface estate on all Exxon Valdez oil spill acquired lands and manage them for conservation and wilderness purposes, as stipulated in the purchase agreements.
The Sound has provided for many of us. It has supported our subsistence and recreational pursuits and our recreation, tourism and fishing economies. It has given us lifelong memories with friends and family. Now it's our turn to provide for the Sound by speaking up to support current protections. Public comment is allowed through Feb. 19.
To speak with the Forest Service and others, come to the Chugach Town Hall from 6 to 8 p..m. Wednesday at the Anchorage Westmark Hotel. The event is sponsored by the local Sierra Club chapter and others.
Kate McLaughlin is president and executive director of Prince William Soundkeeper, a citizen advocacy organization dedicated to preserving the water quality and ecosystem of the Sound. Capt. Dean Rand owns Discovery Voyages, a wilderness-dependent business that has brought over 10,000 visitors to the Sound.
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