The Department of Agriculture yesterday proposed options for future use of 62.1 million acres of national wilderness that included allocating as much as 26.5 million acres as commercial timberlands.
The agency's draft of its long-awaited Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE II) was immediately denounced by environmentalists and mildly praised by representatives of the paper and timber industry.
"They're well on track. We're glad they are where they are," said the National Forest Products Association's Gene Bergoffen of the agency's preliminary study.
But Tim Mahoney of the Wilderness Society was sharply critical. "Environmentalists are going to have to zero in on the Carter administration. They're not delivering. To pacify the development interests they're alienating all their supporters."
Chief John R. McGuire of the U.S. Forest Service concerned that the options "leaned toward production of commodites" on wilderness land. However, he stressed that the options were intended as a starting point for a period of public comment on use of the 2,688 roadless areas inventoried by the department. McGuire said other options are still open.
Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland said he wanted the public to have as much voice as possible in the final decision. The public comment period ends Oct. 1, and the department is to decide by Dec. 29 what lands go to wilderness preservation.
McGuire noted that some lands that are left out could be brought under these protections when new forest management plans are drawn up a few years from now.
The RARE II process has embroiled timber campanies, environmentalists, labor unions (which fear a loss of jobs in sawmills) and state and local governments. The national forests provide about one fourth of the country's supply of sawtimber. As supplies of timber on commercially owned forests have been depleted by strong demand for lumber at home and for unprocessed logs in Japan, pressure on the government to make available more of its reserve of trees in national forests has mounted.
Commercial timber industries have been pressing for a quick decision on utilization of roadless areas so that the Forest Service can start managing the eligible lands for future harvest.
The 10 options released yesterday ranged from allocating all 26.5 million acres of potential timberlands to wilderness to allocating none of them. But most of the eight middle options would permit an annual timber harvest on these public lands equal to or un excess of the target set by Congress in the 1975 Renewable Resources Planning Act.
The act calls for the government to offer between 16.6 billion and 20.3 billion board feet of national forest timber annually for commercial harvest by 2015. Regional estimates are that between 2.8 billion and 3.3 billion board feet would have to come from the present roadless areas to achieve that. In all but two of the options proposed, that figure is equalled or exceeded, and in one of them the annual timber cut would reach 3.8 billion board feet a year.
Several of the plans suggested fall short of the goals of the Resource Planning Act for wilderness utilization by 2015.
Other than the plan calling for the entire 62.1 million acres to stay as wilderness, which officials said was not a realistic alternative, the most pro-conservationist alternative would allocate almost 9 million acres to use as commercial forest.
The department's first major inventory of roadless areas, completed in November 1973, was tied up in court suits. It selected wilderness areas containing 12.3 million acres out of 52 million acres studied for protection.
As a result of court decisions, the Forest Service was prevented from preparing any of the total acreage for possible harvest, pending settlement of the dispute between environmental and timber interests. That dispute is due to be resolved in December.