A sign lets visitors know they're in the Tongass National Forest on Thursday, July 15, 2021, the same day the Biden administration announced yet another reversal of policy over the forest. Debates about the 2001 Roadless Rule are familiar in Southeast Alaska, and Thursday's announcement prompted familiar reactions in the state. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Conservation or constraint? Roadless Rule reversal divides Alaskans

Policy change on the Tongass prompts familiar responses from Alaskans

Yet another federal policy change over the Tongass National Forest prompted familiar responses from Alaskans who have seen policy over the forest change with each presidential administration.

The Biden administration announced Thursday it was ending large-scale sales of old-growth timber and would seek to reimplement the Roadless Rule protections on the forest lifted at the end of the Trump administration. Alaskans were quick to react.

Environmental groups lauded the move while those who want to see move development in the state in general and Tongass in particular, including Gov. Mike Dunleavy, said federal restrictions were preventing Alaskans from the opportunity to work.

“Much like (Keystone) XL Pipeline workers and others, American and Alaskan families just want the chance to work and support their families,” Dunleavy said in a news release. “Our state’s southeast communities need fundamental access, like roads, and the economic and resource development opportunities roads provide.”

Southeast Alaska had only 372 jobs in the timber industry in 2020 according to regional development group Southeast Conference’s annual Southeast by the Numbers report. Timber jobs had grown in 2019, the report says, but declined in 2020 and the U.S. Forest Service did not provide the industry with acreage commitments put forth in the 2016 Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan.

Lack of clear policy has left the timber industry without the ability to plan long-term, according to Southeast Conference.

[Federal officials meet with Southeast tribal governments]

“Moreover, the industry — currently comprised of a handful of small operators across the region — continues to face constant litigation, along with a coordinated national campaign intended to sow public disapproval of the regional industry,” the report said.

Environmentalists, fishing industry groups and Alaska Native villages said the rules would help protect the area from industries that pose a threat to the region’s fish ecosystem.

“The Tongass is one of the last, best places for wild salmon left in North America and a globally significant resource for slowing the impacts of climate change,” said Chris Wood, President and CEO of environmental group Trout Unlimited. “Old-growth timber sales have long been notorious for losing money; reinstating the roadless rule and prioritizing restoration is an investment in the forest’s most valuable and lasting resources.”

The seafood industry accounted for roughly 8% of the jobs in Southeast Alaska, according to Southeast Conference, and in 2020 faced both the COVID-19 pandemic and a poor seafood season. The seafood sector faces growing uncertainty regarding changing ocean conditions, tariffs, state budget cuts, regulatory decision-making, and global farmed seafood competition, Southeast Conference said.

Several groups in favor of the protections noted 96% of public comments supported keeping the Roadless Rule in place as did over 90% of comments from subsistence users.

“Twenty-five percent of the West Coast’s salmon catch comes from the Tongass National Forest,’ said Mary Catherine Martin, spokesperson for SalmonState, an environmental group with a focus on salmon. “The remaining old growth habitat is essential for deer, brown bears, salmon and many other species, as well as to the Tongass’ economy: 26% of jobs in the region come from tourism or commercial fisheries, which are supported by the intact forest.”

The tourism industry made up 18% of the jobs in Southeast in 2019, according to Southeast Conference.

Supporters of the Roadless Rule also noted that roads built in the region are paid for and maintained by taxpayers but often chiefly benefit private companies. Budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense has published several analyses of the cost of Forest Service operations compared with revenue generated from timber sales which show an annual average loss to taxpayers of $44 million and $1.7 billion since 1980.

But there are critics of the Roadless Rule for reasons other than timber and the resource industry. Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference, has in the past pointed to a proposed electrical intertie between Petersburg and Kake which would help reduce costs for the village and has been hampered by the costs imposed by the Roadless Rule.

Environmentalists favor the rule because it requires vigorous environmental review and opportunities for public input which ensure compliance with existing laws. But that costs a lot of time and money, Venables has said, and can prevent those kinds of projects from being completed.

On Wednesday the Biden administration also announced grants to American Indian and Alaska Native communities to shore up energy infrastructure and one of the projects listed was an electrical intertie between the Metlakatla Indian Community and Ketchikan. In an interview, Wednesday, Jeremy Bynum, acting division director at the Ketchikan Public Utility said regulations in the Roadless Rule would add costs to the project.

However, some groups framed the protections as protection the way of life for Indigenous peoples. In a statement, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network which has representatives from Tongass-connected communities in Southeast Alaska, said protecting the forest is key for ensuring food sovereignty in Indigenous communities and combating centuries of colonial policies seeking to displace Indigenous peoples from their homelands.

“As matriarchs we are on watch for future generations,” said Yoland Fulmer, one of WECAN’s Tongass Indigenous representatives who is Tlingit. “We are sovereign. We have never been separate from our ecosystem. Everything that our culture is belongs to this land, we are in coexistence with this land, we are part of this land.”

Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake told the Empire in a phone interview Thursday the protections would lead to the reduction of some jobs but said lack of protections would have its own negative consequences.

“There’s always a downside to everything,” Jackson said. “The biggest downside to not protecting it would be our way of life. It’s not just jobs it’s our way of life.”

Representatives from tribal governments in Southeast met with U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service met last week to discuss the Roadless Rule and the past relationship between the federal and tribal governments. Tribal leaders have voiced concern several times at the lack of government-to-government consultations that are supposed to take place between federal and tribal governments, but the Biden administration had pledged to increase those talks.

Jackson said he was cautiously optimistic the Biden administration would continue to hold tribal consultations.

“I think they heard us loud and clear, and I think that’s why this announcement came out today,” Jackson said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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