A hiker explores the Tongass National Forest. (U.S. Forest Service photo)

A hiker explores the Tongass National Forest. (U.S. Forest Service photo)

The Forest Service just took an inventory of the Tongass, wants suggestions about what to protect

Two-month comment period on draft map part of major revision of forest’s land management plan.

A draft inventory of what’s in the Tongass National Forest was released Wednesday by officials who are giving the public until Sept. 14 to offer suggestions about what areas should get federal wilderness protection.

The assessment is part of a multiyear update of the Tongass Land Management Plan, which was last fully revised in 1997 and amended in 2016. An interactive map detailing the inventory of the Tongass was released in advance of a webinar about the wilderness designation process scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, which will be hosted by the U.S. Forest Service and the Society for Wilderness Stewardship.

“The draft inventory was created by looking at all lands within the boundaries of the Tongass National Forest, then removing lands not managed by the agency, existing wilderness, and all other lands containing roads, power lines, or substantially noticeable improvements, such as developed campgrounds and parking lots,” the website containing the map notes.

”Everything remaining is what you will see on the map, which moves forward for additional study in step two of the process — the Evaluation step. The Wilderness Suitability Process carries no requirement or expectation that areas will be recommended for wilderness designation. ONLY Congress may designate wilderness.”

An interactive online map shows natural and human-made features near Juneau as part of a draft inventory of the Tongass National Forest published by the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday. (Screenshot from U.S. Forest Service website)

An interactive online map shows natural and human-made features near Juneau as part of a draft inventory of the Tongass National Forest published by the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday. (Screenshot from U.S. Forest Service website)

While the Forest Service announcement said a “45-day feedback period” began Wednesday, the actual comment period of more than two months is because officials decided to make the period 45 business days, said Paul Robbins, a spokesperson for the agency. The change is permissible since the current “feedback” period doesn’t fall under public input requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

“We’re just doing it because we want more feedback on this process, so since it’s kind of a voluntary thing we really have more flexibility in what we do with the feedback period,” he said. “That’s why we’re not calling it a comment period, which is the term for a NEPA comment period.”

The draft inventory is the beginning of the four-step Wilderness Suitability Process, with the following steps being evaluation, analysis and recommendations, according to the Forest Service’s website. The latter stages will occur as part of the overall land management plan revision process, with a draft assessment scheduled by January 2025 and a final revision scheduled for completion in 2028.

Major economic, environmental, climate and other changes affecting the Tongass have occurred since 1997, which is why a major revision to the plan is taking place, said Barbara Miranda, the Tongass’ deputy forest supervisor for the Forest Service, in an interview published March 20 by the Empire.

“Since then we’ve made targeted amendments focused on the wood products industry, including a 2016 amendment that focused on the need to transition to young growth,” she said. “Still, so much has changed that we need to account for in this plan — for example, how is climate change affecting the state of the rainforest and oceans? How are these changes affecting people’s ability to subsist and practice traditional ways of life here? We also haven’t looked at tourism on the Tongass in a comprehensive plan since 1997.”

Public comments can be submitted via the Tongass management plan website or by email to TongassPlanRevision@usda.gov.

This story will be updated after the webinar Wednesday evening with details of the presentation.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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