The U.S. Forest Service announced Tuesday it is looking to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 “Roadless Rule,” prompting outcry from local conservationists who say the land should remain protected from development.
“Obviously we’re profoundly disappointed,” said Meredith Trainor, executive director at the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said in an interview. “We’re ready to fight for the people of Southeast Alaska.”
The Roadless Rule prohibits road construction or reconstruction and timber harvest on 58.5 million ares of National Forest System lands, according to the Forest Service.
The Forest Service is now seeking public comment on alternatives to the Roadless Rule for a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). The service has presented a range of alternatives to the rule, many of which would allow timber harvest of old-growth forest.
The service’s preferred alternative would remove 9.2 million acres of Tongass National Forest. Additionally it would convert 165,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres previously designated as unsuitable for timber harvest to suitable land, according to a press release from the Forest Service.
Trainor said that the decision to undo the Roadless Rule was less about economics and more about politics.
“I think it’s a lot about people like Sen. (Lisa) Murkowski (R, Alaska) getting stuck on what Southeast Alaska’s economy could and should look like,” Trainor said.
President Donald Trump’s administration signaled its intention to remove the Roadless Rule in August when the president instructed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt the Tongass, the Washington Post reported at the time.
The Post reported that decision came following a meeting the president had with Gov. Mike Dunleavy aboard Air Force One in February. Dunleavy sent President Trump a letter on March 1, asking the president to exempt the Tongass.
“Today’s announcement on the Roadless Rule is further proof that Alaska’s economic outlook is looking brighter every day,” Dunleavy said in a press release. “The ill-advised 2001 Roadless Rule shut down the timber industry in Southeast Alaska, wiping out jobs and economic opportunity for thousands of Alaskans. I thank the Forest Service for listening to Alaskans wishes by taking the first step to rebuilding an entire industry, putting Alaskans back to work, and diversifying Alaska’s economy.”
In a joint statement, all three of Alaska’s delegates to Congress, Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, all Republicans, lauded the move.
“I’m very pleased the administration has listened to Alaskans and is proposing a full exemption from the Roadless Rule as its preferred alternative,” Murkowski said in a statement. “This is important for a wide array of local stakeholders as we seek to create sustainable economies in Southeast Alaska.”
But Trainor and others pointed out that timber currently accounts for less than 1 percent of Southeast Alaska’s economy. According to Southeast Conference, the regional development organization, the timber industry declined by 5 percent in 2018.
In the statement, Sullivan said the Roadless Rule inhibits the construction of critical projects other than timber harvest that would provide and economic boost to the region.
“The Roadless Rule hinders our ability to responsibly harvest timber, develop minerals, connect communities, or build energy projects to lower costs — including renewable energy projects like hydropower, all of which severely impedes the economy of Southeast,” Sullivan said.
Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, said people there depend on the Tongass for food security.
“It provides for us, in our hunting and gathering,” Jackson said by phone Monday. “The streams that go through the forest provide the salmon that return to our streams. That’s why we’re very protective of our forest.”
Jackson said that many rural communities in Southeast Alaska depend on hunting and gathering to survive because of the high costs of getting supplies to those areas.
‘It costs us two or three times more (than Juneau) to get goods here,” he said. When previous logging operations had come to the area around Kake, Jackson said there was little economic boost to the community.
“They being their own people, they bring their own food,” he said. “It won’t create jobs here in the community.”
Jackson said that a representative from the Forest Service had called Monday morning to inform him of the decision. He said the Forest Service had consulted with the village over the years regarding the Roadless Rule, but he felt the meetings had not been meaningful.
“They listen but that’s about it,” Jackson said of the Forest Service. “I didn’t really feel it was a true consultation. They’re checking their boxes because that’s what they have to do. It’s nothing new, we’ve dealt with it before.”
Jackson said ever since the Roadless Rule had been implemented, state officials have been trying to dismantle it.
“Now there’s people in power both at the federal and state levels where they’re in a position they think than can overturn the rule,” he said.
In a statement, Senate Republicans in the Alaska Legislature praised the decision. The only representative from Southeast Alaska quoted in the release was Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.
“This is good news,” Stedman said in the release. “We’ve been challenged for years dealing with the Forest Service and getting our right of ways for road connections.”
The Forest Service previously conducted a public comment scoping period in Southeast Alaska in 2018 when then-Gov. Bill Walker submitted a petition to create an Alaska-specific Roadless Rule exemption. In its summary of public comments, the Forest Service said that a majority of the 144,000 submissions opposed changing the Roadless Rule.
A survey from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan research group, found that 75 percent of Americans support the Roadless Rule.
How to submit a comment to the Forest Service
Public comment is open until midnight on Dec. 17. Comments can be submitted by fax, email, online or by post.
Email comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
Mail can be sent to: USDA Forest Service, Attn: Alaska Roadless Rule, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, Alaska, 99802
More information can be found at the Forest Service website.
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at 523-2228 or email@example.com.