Seven Alaskans were in Washington, D.C. Wednesday, testifying to Congress about the Trump administration’s proposal to lift the Roadless Rule on the Tongass National Forest.
“We’re connected to the land, and the waters, so much so that if these things go away we’re going to lose our identity,” Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, told the dozen House Representatives gathered to hear the testimony.
Speaking before a crowd of about 50 at the Longworth House Office Building, most of the witnesses called to testify spoke about how lifting the Roadless Rule would harm the communities and the ecosystems of Southeast Alaska. Four testified in support of keeping the Roadless Rule and three testified in favor of lifting it.
“This common-sense safeguard has helped rein in decades of environmentally devastating logging and roadbuilding,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, chair of the subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands under the House Natural Resources Committee. Haaland was speaking in support of the protections afforded by the Roadless Rule.
“This is especially true in Southeast Alaska, where the Roadless Rule has protected lands that Alaska Natives have depended upon and cared for since time immemorial,” she said. Haaland is Native American and a member of the Laguna Pueblo people of New Mexico.
The Roadless Rule has been in place on the Tongass National Forest since 2001, and says that no additional roads can be built on National Forest land without going through an extensive exemption process. Lifting the rule, however, has been a goal of every Alaska governor since its inception, arguing that its prohibitions are too stringent and prohibit necessary and critical development which help local communities.
Supporters of the Roadless Rule say it’s necessary to protect a critical ecosystem from environmental devastation. The Tongass is home to spawning grounds for various species of salmon found in Alaska, which support the local fishing, tourism and seafood industries as well as subsistence users.
Earlier this year the Trump administration announced it was looking at alternatives to the Roadless Rule in Alaska, including lifting the rule entirely, which has set off a round of debates over the rule’s merits.
Congress has no official say in the process as the selection of alternatives is ultimately up to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Lawmakers, however, can urge the secretary to make a certain decision.
In Wednesday’s hearing, entitled: “Roads to Ruin: Examining the Impacts of Removing National Forest Roadless Protections,” Jackson was critical of the Forest Service’s process in drafting the alternatives.
“They gave us two weeks to go through that 500-page (Draft Environmental Impact Statement), to make meaningful comments. It took 10-, 12-hour days of four or five staff members to go through that,” Jackson said. “That cost us thousands of dollars, thousands of dollars that we don’t have as tribes. But it means so much to us that we did it. Because these are our ancestral homes, my ancestors walked on that land.”
Jackson told the subcommittee the Organized Village of Kake had withdrawn its status as a cooperating agency in the planning process because they felt disrespected by the Forest Service.
“We entered in good faith as a cooperating agency, against our misgivings because we are a sovereign government,” he said. Jackson said that his organization’s position had always been to keep the Roadless Rule in place. “As time went on I viewed what we were doing not as consultation but as a conversation with the Forest Service, and once they came out with full exemption, we felt very disrespected.”
Austin Williams, Alaska Director of Law and Policy for Trout Unlimited, told the subcommittee that Roadless Rule protections were necessary to protect the region’s fishing and tourism industries.
“When evaluating the benefits from the Tongass to society, the Forest Service and the State of Alaska are placing far too much emphasis on traditional extractive resources,” Williams said. “Largely ignoring benefits from fish, wildlife, subsistence, recreation and water resources.”
Speaking in support of lifting the Roadless Rule was Alaska’s lone Congressman Don Young, R-Alaska, who joined the proceedings.
“I see I’m outnumbered today,” Young said, following Haaland’s opening statement. “This misguided Roadless Rule is disastrous for Alaskans and Southeast, I would say there’s about 85 percent of the Tongass cannot be touched because of other qualification.”
Young and other supporters of lifting the Roadless Rule point to the number of other federal protections on the Tongass, such as the Alaska Native Lands Claim Act and the Tongass Timber Reform Act. Both of those laws place protections on much of the Tongass and cannot be exempted without an act of Congress.
“This title, “Roads to Ruin,” is quite frankly a misleading nomer,” Young said. “So we’ll listen to this hearing, we listen to some witnesses, I know that they’re all trying to be sincere but remember Madame Chair, it’s not just about certain interest groups that may not understand the total picture.”
Lifting the Roadless Rule wasn’t about logging, Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venebles told the subcommittee, but about necessary economic development.
“For the region as a whole, this is not about timber, it has very little to do with roads. It’s about forest management,” Venebles said. “It’s about access to resources that local communities, the state and the nation need. There are rare earth minerals that need access to develop.”
Venebles said the restrictions placed by the Roadless Rule are too constricting and make necessary infrastructure projects too expensive. He pointed to an electrical intertie project which ran into cost overruns because of the bureaucratic process involved in gaining an exemption to the rule.
“The Roadless Rule has become larger than life, it’s often not described as it should be,” Venebles said. “It’s been a major distraction to the Forest Service’s main mission of managing the Tongass for the benefit of all communities.”
Christopher French, deputy chief of the Forest Service who was in Juneau recently for a public meeting on the proposed alternatives to the Roadless Rule, also spoke in favor of lifting the r, as did Kyle Moselle, associate director of the Office of Project Management and Permitting at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
By the end of the testimony, Young did not seem swayed by any of the testimony in support of the Roadless Rule protections.
“So roads aren’t really evil, they do provide good for man,” he asked Venebles.
“They have shown that to be the case,” Venebles replied.
Want to weigh in?
The Forest Service will be accepting public comment on the proposed alternatives to the Roadless Rule until midnight on Dec. 17. Instructions on submitting comments can be found at the Forest Service website.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or email@example.com.