Local issues raised at Forest meeting
Seward area residents met with Chugach Forest administrators last Thursday to discuss the future of the National Forest. Skiers, hikers, snowmobilers, fishermen, cabin renters, independent loggers, and volunteers who maintain the Iditarod National Historic Trail were some of the 29 interested locals at the Feb. 21 public meeting at the Seward Library Museum. Ten residents also turned out Monday night for a similar event at the Moose Pass Community Center, and even more came for a simultaneous meeting in Cooper Landing.
The Chugach National Forest Service is hosting nine public meetings in Alaska communities around the 5.4 million-acre forest as part of the first phase of a three-year revision of the 2002 Forest Plan revision. The revisions are important as the changes will be in effect for the following 15 years. The plan needs to be updated to incorporate expected changes in the Forest including those caused by climate change, invasive species, development, changes in recreational uses, and more.
Under a new federal rule-making process for national forests, Chugach NF Supervisor, Terri Marceron, based in Anchorage, will signoff on the revision. In addition to the public meetings, she has also begun gathering comments from other Forest stakeholders such as Native village leaders, Native corporate leaders, and vendors who provide activities and accommodations to Forest users.
In the first phase of the revision, USFS is identifying and evaluating existing information about the ecological, economic and social conditions and trends related to the Forest and southcentral Alaska. People are being asked how they use the Forest now, how those uses and users might change over time, what they see as emerging issues and trends in use, and how USFS can be more transparent about its activities, and increase public involvement in the revision process.
Participants were divided into three smaller working groups where they addressed 15 concerns and issues that the USFS hopes to address in the plan’s update. The theory is that people feel freer to share ideas in smaller groups, and that the group’s collaboration will encourage new ideas.
One group was dominated by people who hoped to obtain “green permits” enabling them to log Forest timber for personal use. They were also interested in obtaining contracts with the USFS to help with logging, trail clearing and other odd jobs that might arise.
Another group’s members primarily raised concerns about the Forest’s environment. They wondered about things like the effects of residential development on the Chugach’s watershed ecosystem and soundscape; the need to be more proactive on invasive species before they proliferate. They wondered about the carrying capacity of lakes and streams that are stocked with salmon and other fish, and one birder suggested that migrating bird surveys be done to indicate Forest health. The growth of heli-ski operations, run by vendors living outside Alaska, and their impact on the wildlife and other Forest users was another concern.
Favorite trails also generated discussion. Seward’s own Iditarod musher Dan Seavey, and historian Lee Poleske, whose mission includes maintaining and extending the Iditarod National Historic Trail, talked about the need to continue to maintain and improve that trail system. The historic trail committee has long made strides in that direction, in close collaboration with USFS. But trails and bridges are frequently washed out or covered with debris in annual flood events and storms, making them difficult to maintain or upgrade, and improving them is a continual struggle.
Some mentioned the difficulty of renting remote USFS cabins, which are often booked long before summer starts. As there is no cancellation policy, renters often change their plans and simply leave the cabins vacant, although others would have liked to have used them. One participant was unhappy that the older log books provided in the remote cabins had apparently been removed. They were fun to read and provided helpful anecdotal information about the area, its trails and wildlife.
With the Whittier Tunnel and marine ferry system, greater numbers of people are accessing remote areas of the Chugach National Forest in Prince William Sound than ever before, somebody said. Several people urged USFS to carefully manage the Wilderness Study Area in western Prince William Sound, and to recommend its full protection to Congress. The study area spans from Columbia Bay and Knight Island in the east, to Harriman Fiord and Port Bainbridge in the west. However, the current USFS recommendation to Congress for the protected study area excludes the lands around Columbia Bay, Knight Island, Port Wells, Nellie Juan Lake and other wild places in the heart of Prince William Sound that these citizens feel should be protected as wilderness. An official federal designation would protect the area by prohibiting lodges, resorts, roads, mines, helicopter tours and off-road vehicles.
The Chugach Forest Plan has been amended five times since 2002, with some of the recent changes made in the monitoring of fisheries, mountain goats and management of heritage resources, said USFS Supervisor Marceron. But USFS has never asked young people what they think. So leadership is trying to reach out to involve Alaska’s young people through Alaska Geographic, Alaska Children’s Forest and area schools. During the mid-2000s, a youth restoration corps helped USFS perform restoration work on the Kenai Riverbank, she said.
USFS also is implementing an “All Lands Approach” to forest management that recognizes that although there may be lines on a map indicating Forest boundaries, the forest plan should also consider the management goals that other federal or state agencies are implementing outside of those borders, said Marceron.