Photo by Luc Mehl (on the ancestral lands of the Dena’ina Etnena, Dënéndeh, and other Nations)
The 5.4-million-acre Chugach National Forest in southcentral Alaska, America’s most northerly national forest, published a new Forest Management Plan in April 2020. Covering an area the size of New Hampshire, stretching from the snowy peaks of Prince William Sound to the Kenai Peninsula, the Chugach features spectacular coastal mountains with some of the best and wildest backcountry terrain in the world.
The Chugach Forest Plan Revision Journey
Starting in 2015, the Forest Service worked to revise the Chugach Forest Plan, with the final plan being released in 2020. Unfortunately, despite strong public support for additional protections for the Nellie Juan-College Fiord Wilderness Study Area (WSA), the 2020 plan failed to recommend additional areas within the WSA for Wilderness beyond what was recommended in the old (2002) plan, and it reduced or eliminated important management tools that are necessary for protecting the Wilderness character of the WSA and its potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.
The Nellie Juan-College Fiord WSA is the largest Wilderness Study Area in the country and was designated in 1980 as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. This truly wild and roadless landscape includes the highest concentration of tidewater glaciers in North America, is home to spectacular land and ocean life, and was severely impacted by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In order to help the landscape recover from the spill and protect it from future harm, we advocated for the Forest Service to recommend 94% of the WSA for Wilderness.
However, the 2020 Plan only recommended 72% of the WSA for Wilderness and it changed the Forest Service’s obligations from managing the WSA to preserve its wilderness character, to managing the WSA to preserve its “presently existing character”. Because this is a pretty nebulous goal, we pushed for the Forest Service to at least commit to defining this baseline so that we know what the “presently existing character” of the WSA is.
A Report on the WSA’s “Presently Existing Character”
Recently, one year after completing the Chugach Forest Plan revision and in response to our call to the Forest Service to commit to defining the baseline of the WSA’s “presently existing character,” the Chugach National Forest published a Nellie Juan-College Fiord Wilderness Study Area Existing Character Baseline Report.
This baseline report on the area as it currently exists will inform future management decisions in the WSA and is a direct result of our engagement in the plan revision alongside Alaska Quiet Rights Coalition, Alaska Wilderness League, Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation, and the Eyak Preservation Council.
Together, we insisted that the Forest Service produce this report to inform future management and ensure that the wilderness character of the WSA is not further degraded.
The report serves to answer the question whether the existing character of the WSA is being maintained while sharing the information necessary to ensure monitoring is conducted in a consistent and repeatable manner. It also describes the area’s “intangible experiences” and is intended to reflect the social and ecological characteristics experienced in the WSA.
How Does this Impact the Chugach’s Future?
Moving forward, these documents will provide informed guidance on agency decisions both big and small as well as bring important transparency to how the Forest Service manages the WSA. Preserving the WSA’s character is essential to maintaining it’s potential to be designated as Wilderness – the ultimate goal for this incredible landscape.
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