Opinion: Why the Tongass should be exempt from the roadless rule

Opinion: Why the Tongass should be exempt from the roadless rule

The 2001 Roadless Rule, covering 58 million acres of National Forest Land, including the Tongass and Chugach National Forests, was pushed through the entire national rulemaking and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) processes in 15 months. The 2001 Roadless Rule was promulgated by the outgoing Clinton Administration just eight days before President George W. Bush was inaugurated.

The Roadless Rule was justified by the Clinton Administration’s claim that a national level “whole picture” review of National Forest roadless areas was needed because: “Local management planning efforts may not always recognize the significance of inventoried roadless areas.”

But the Roadless Rule did not justify the need for making multiple “national level, whole picture” reviews of the same National Forest. One national whole picture review was apparently sufficient to protect all the other national forests from local forest managers failure to “recognize the significance of inventoried roadless areas” and to prevent “their ecological character and social values” from being “incrementally reduced.”

The 2001 Roadless Rule was the fourth time areas of the Tongass were set aside by the national government. Prior to promulgation of the Roadless Rule the Tongass had undergone two Congressional reviews (ANILCA and TTRA) and a 1999 USDA Secretarial review that had set aside over 6.6 million acres of the Tongass in Wilderness and other restrictive land use categories. The USDA rulemaking included a separate Tongass decision, but the Roadless Rule’s general statement of Purpose and Need did not explain the need for a fourth “national level, whole picture” review of the Tongass.

My administration stressed this point in settling the lawsuit with USDA that Gov. Tony Knowles had filed in 2001. We also pointed to the facts that denying road access to 9.4 million acres violated the “No More” clause of ANILCA and deprived the Forest Service of its ability to seek to meet the market demand for timber as required by the TTRA. Finally, we emphasized the adverse socioeconomic impacts caused by the rule.

The USDA agreed to temporarily exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule because “the roadless values on the Tongass are sufficiently protected under the Tongass Forest Plan and the additional restrictions associated with the roadless rule are not required.” The 2003 Regulation also stated:

The Department has concluded that the social and economic hardships to Southeast Alaska outweigh the potential long-term ecological benefits because the Tongass Forest plan adequately provides for the ecological sustainability of the Tongass. Every facet of Southeast Alaska’s economy is important and the potential adverse impacts from application of the roadless rule are not warranted, given the abundance of roadless areas and protections already afforded in the Tongass Forest Plan.

The subsequent Roadless Rule litigation has been over USDA’s process in promulgating the 2003 Exemption. USDA’s substantive, policy determination has never been challenged and is as true today as it was then. Given that 6.6 million acres of the Tongass are in Wilderness and other Congressionally designated restricted land categories, USDA should once again exempt the entire Tongass from the Roadless Rule. Denying access to an additional 9.6 million acres of the Tongass by Roadless Area designation creates a gross imbalance. We don’t need 16.2 million acres of the 16.9 million acre Tongass National Forest to be “protected” from the Alaskans who live in Southeast Alaska.

Nevertheless, some Southeast Alaska based environmental groups contend that denying road access to almost the entire Tongass is the only way to “protect” it. In fact, the Tongass Land and Resource Management Plans will continue to protect the Tongass through multiple use management. As Congress reaffirmed in the National Forest Management Act of 1976, multiple use management is the organizing principle on National Forests. Preservation is the organizing principle of National Parks.

USDA is using a State Roadless Rule process in re-examining the application of the Roadless Rule to the Tongass. The alternatives considered will range from leaving the Roadless Rule in place to total exemption. Total Exemption is what the Walker Administration requested in its Petition for rulemaking and it is the alternative that I favor.

I oppose leaving some areas in Roadless and exempting other areas. USDA should not pick winners and losers by setting aside road access to one resource in order to provide access to another resource.

I urge USDA to consider the following policies in its rulemaking:

• While “reasonable” access is allowed for mining in IRAs, mining companies often need road access to get heavy equipment from tidewater to a Project site or to otherwise proceed with economically exploring and developing a mine or a hydro facility. Road access for mining exploration and development and for renewable energy projects should be presumptively authorized throughout the Forest.

• Road access to renewable energy projects (including geothermal to which road access is currently prohibited) should be authorized. For example, renewable energy could replace diesel power in rural Southeast communities or be available to power mining exploration and/or mine development.

• Sufficient land, suitable for the economic harvest of timber, should be made available to provide for an integrated timber industry that uses saw logs and pulp logs.

• The IRAs which prohibit the Juneau Access Road should be removed.

• The Transportation and Utility System Land Use Designation that was eliminated in the 2016 Tongass Transition Plan should be restored to allow implementation of the State’s Southeast Transportation Plan.

• Frank H. Murkowski was a U.S. senator from Alaska from 1981 until 2002 and governor of Alaska from 2002 until 2006.

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