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Ketchikan comes up with all kinds of ways to help others.

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Michael James Zelensky, 58, died Aug. 2, 2014, in Ketchikan.
Janet E. Boyce, 71, died Aug. 8, 2014, in Ketchikan.
Jane M. Leding, 90, died Feb. 6, 2014, in Seattle.
6/13/2009
We love surprises

The ink had barely dried on U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's May 28 announcement about timber and other resource projects in roadless areas of national forests before some environmentalists pounced.

"The Tongass (National Forest) is clearly going to be ground zero," Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso told the New York Times about the likely impact of Vilsack's decision.

Jane Danowitz of the Pew Environmental Group mentioned the Tongass specifically in her statement, in which she urged President Barack Obama to "swiftly" reinstate the full roadless rule enacted during the last days of the Clinton administration.

The New York Times soon opined that Obama should consider "enlarging the scope of the Clinton (roadless rule) to include Alaska's Tongass National Forest, parts of which have long been coveted by the timber industry."

Oh my. Does this sound familiar?

It will to any Ketchikan resident who was present during the "timber wars" of the 1990s.

From early indications - and despite the awkward fact that timber harvests have been at a small fraction of pulp-mill-era volumes for more than a decade - it appears that "Save the Tongass" is becoming the rally cry of the eco-warriors once again.

Who can blame them? It worked so well before.

Besides unraveling much of Southeast Alaska's timber industry, "Save the Tongass" propaganda also helped convince Clinton to adopt the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule that placed about 58.5 million acres of federal land nationwide in "inventoried roadless areas" off-limits to timber and other natural resource development.

The Bush administration later changed parts of the rule (including an exemption for the Tongass) to reduce some of the restrictions and allow states more of a say in how federal roadless areas are managed.

Now, some in the environmental community are viewing Vilsack's announcement as a signal that the new president will soon overturn the Bush revisions to the rule - and fence off new areas under its restrictions.

We agree that's all too likely.

Vilsack's upcoming actions will indicate the administration's new direction.

His May 28 directive is cause for concern already.

It noted that court cases had "simultaneously" upheld and overturned parts of the Clinton rule, creating confusion and making it "difficult for the U.S. Forest Service to do its job."

To alleviate such confusion, Vilsack gave himself the final decision-making authority over any "proposed forest management or road construction project in inventoried roadless areas," according to the announcement. The only exception will be in Idaho, a state that has developed its own roadless plan under Bush-era rules.

"This interim (one-year) directive will provide consistency and clarity that will help protect our national forests until a long term roadless policy reflecting President Obama's commitment is developed," Vilsack said.

Some media outlets and environmental groups have described the directive as a one-year "time-out" or "moratorium" on road building and timber harvest in inventoried roadless areas.

But nothing in Vilsack's announcement or actual order says anything of the sort.

They simply say that Vilsack is the final decider. And he essentially can do whatever he wants.

"(The interim directive) does not prevent the secretary from either approving projects that he believes are in the interest of forest stewardship or prohibiting projects he believes are not," states the announcement.

In other words, the decisions will be politically driven.

A timber project vetted thoroughly by the Forest Service's extensive public process and deemed ready for sale just won't happen unless Vilsack says it will.

And given the political muscle that conservationists supplied to Obama's presidential campaign, it's clear who has the administration's ear on this one.

It's also clear that some in the environmental community intend to use the Tongass as their rallying cry yet again, regardless of the facts on the ground - or the social and economic damage to Southeast Alaska's small communities that is sure to follow if the secretary arbitrarily blocks the few timber sales possible under the current rules.

Southeast Alaska needs those sales if our remaining timber operators are to successfully make the transition to the second-growth industry touted so highly by conservationists.

That's still about 15 years away, however, a time frame based on the ages of new timber stands.

Until then, local timber operators are on the razor's edge of viability where every possible sale from the Tongass is vital for survival.

We hope Secretary Vilsack proves us flat wrong about where his directive appears to be heading.

We'll know soon. The Forest Service has a few Tongass timber sales in the works that involve inventoried roadless areas.

Surprise us, Mr. Vilsack.

Please.