Eight Southeast Alaska Native tribes want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop working on a plan to rollback the Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest.
Tribal leaders delivered a letter this week asking Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, to halt rulemaking work and tribal consultation for a plan that would exempt 9.2 million acres of the Tongass National Forest from a federal rule prohibiting tree harvest and road construction.
The letter cited governments straining to meet demands created by COVID-19 as well as the inability to meet in person as reasons for the request for a rulemaking pause on the Roadless Rule exemption.
“Communities are using all existing resources to prepare and address this health crisis.” All of these restrictions make it extremely challenging, if not impossible, to engage in the federal rulemaking,” states the letter signed by leaders from Hoonah Indian Association, Organized Village of Saxman, Organized Village of Kasaan, Klawock Cooperative Association, Craig Tribal Association, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and Ketchikan Indian Association.
Tlingit & Haida President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson and Organized Village of Kake President Joel Jackson said in separate phone interviews the letter’s delivery comes on the heels of a recent attempt at a remote meeting among tribal leaders and the USDA. It also follows past discussions, including a November meeting in Juneau.
“We’ve had interactions with the undersecretary,” Peterson said. “I think they hear us out, but I don’t think anything is going to change.”
Peterson and Jackson each said face-to-face meetings are the preferred mode for tribal consultations, and in light of internet connectivity issues in some communities virtual consultations may be impractical or impossible.
“I didn’t think a Zoom conference or a conference call would suffice to be consultation,” Jackson said. “I agree for it to be true consultation, it has to be face-to-face.”
Face-to-face meetings are also the Forest Service’s preference for consultations, according to the Forest Service Handbook, which also states agreed-upon alternatives may also be used for consultation.
The letter plainly rejects alternatives.
“Virtual meetings and other online tools cannot meet the requirements of a robust discussion that would inform a tribal position on the documents,” states the letter.
Also, Jackson and Peterson said tribes are right now focused on health and wellness of communities and may not be able to provide timely feedback.
The letter delivered to Perdue specifically cited a March 7 pre-public draft of a final environmental impact statement that requested feedback by March 21 and virtual consultation as “unconscionable” and noted President Donald Trump declared a national emergency March 13.
“Right now, most of our communities’ priorities are just keeping our communities safe,” Peterson said. “We’re just asking for them to delay this so folks can get through this pandemic.”
“We’ve made a case that because of COVID-19, we don’t have the resources or the time to reply to the process,” he added.
Whether such a pause will take place is unclear. The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Jackson and Peterson said they haven’t received an answer.
“I hope they listen to us,” Peterson said.
• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt