Tongass National Forest:

Process Used to Modify the Forest Plan

RCED-00-45: Published: Apr 17, 2000. Publicly Released: May 3, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Tongass National Forest's revised forest plan, focusing on the: (1) process used by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to modify the management direction in the 1997 plan and decide the appeals on the basis of the modified plan; (2) reasons the administration chose to use the process; and (3) reactions to the modifications and the process.

GAO noted that: (1) USDA's Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment used a unique process to approve modifications to the management direction in the 1997 Tongass forest plan and decide appeals on the basis of the plan, as modified; (2) this was the first time that an Under Secretary approved substantive modifications to a forest plan and issued initial appeal decisions based on the plan, as modified; (3) USDA's Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment approved modifications to the management direction in the 1997 Tongass forest plan to address certain concerns raised in appeals of the plan and decided the appeals on the basis of the modified plan for two reasons; (4) according to the Under Secretary, he believed he improved the 1997 Tongass plan by addressing three interrelated concerns: (a) old-growth forest and the species that depend on it for habitat; (b) lands and resources used for subsistence hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering by rural Alaskans; and (c) areas of special interest valued for ecological, recreational, subsistence, cultural, spiritual, and scenic purposes; (5) his modifications--each of which was designed to increase the protection of old-growth forest, subsistence uses, and areas of special interest--included: (a) removing another 234,000 acres from timber harvesting and other development activities; (b) increasing from 100 years to 200 years the time that must elapse between timber harvests on the same location on about 40 percent of the Tongass where timber harvesting is allowed; and (c) decreasing the open road density in areas where roads have been determined to significantly contribute to wolf mortality; (6) according to the Under Secretary, the second reason he chose to approve modifications to the management direction in the 1997 plan and decide the appeals on the basis of the modified plan was to end the appeals process as quickly as possible; (7) interested and affected parties have raised concerns about both the modifications to the management direction in the 1997 plan and the process used to approve the modifications and decide the appeals; and (8) these concerns are related to the trade-offs among competing forest uses inherent in the modifications and the trade-off between ending the appeals process as quickly as possible and providing opportunities for additional public participation and further scientific analysis.

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