Public Comment Sought On Draft of Tongass-Specific Roadless Rule
Preferred alternative could resurrect timber industry in Southeast Alaska
By MARY KAUFFMAN
October 16, 2019
The Tongass stretches over the 500-mile-long Southeast Alaska Panhandle and covers 80 percent of the land. It is rich in natural resources and cultural heritage. Developed areas cover about 8 percent of the land. There are 32 communities, including the state capitol of Juneau, in Southeast Alaska.
The USDA Forest Service will publish the documents in the Federal Register this week. The publication will begin a 60-day public comment period on the proposed rule, and on each alternative outlined in the draft environmental impact statement.
The draft environmental impact statement, prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act, provides an analysis of six alternatives, which are options, choices, or courses of action related to roadless management in Alaska. The alternatives range from no action to the removal of the Tongass from the 2001 Roadless Rule. The Department has identified Alternative 6, which is a full exemption, as the preferred alternative at this time. The full range of options are:
Tuesday Alaska Governor Michael J. Dunleavy praised the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed Alaska Roadless Rule exemption for the Tongass National Forest. Quoting the governor's news release, the draft EIS lists six potential options and selects Alternative 6, a full exemption of the Tongass National Forest from the Clinton-era 2001 Roadless Rule as the preferred option.
“[Tuesday’s] announcement on the Roadless Rule is further proof that Alaska’s economic outlook is looking brighter every day,” said Governor Dunleavy. “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 USDA Forest Service and 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.”
According to the governor, Alternative 6 is fully responsive to the State of Alaska’s petition to completely remove the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule. This USDA preferred alternative removes all 9.2 million roadless acres and reclassifies 165,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres to suitable timber lands. The draft EIS only applies to the Tongass National Forest.
Governor Dunleavy worked with President Donald Trump, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, Congressman Don Young, Senator Dan Sullivan, Senator Lisa Murkowski and others to reopen the Tongass and thanked them for their support and hard work.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R_AK) said, “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, “I thank President Trump, Secretary Perdue, and the team at the Forest Service for their hard work to reach this point—and for their continued efforts to restore reasonable access to the Tongass National Forest. This is important for a wide array of local stakeholders as we seek to create sustainable economies in Southeast Alaska.”
U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan responded to the announcment saying, “I welcome the decision by Secretary Perdue and President Trump to include as the preferred alternative a full exemption for Alaska from the Clinton-Era Roadless Rule. As Alaskans know well, 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, “I am grateful that the Forest Service is committed to work with the State of Alaska and the people affected by its policies to create a more workable regulation that can provide for responsible economic activities to provide for Alaskans living in Southeast.”
Congressman Don Young (R-AK) said, “I sincerely thank Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and President Donald Trump for their continued commitment to protecting Southeast Alaska’s economic viability for years to come. Moving forward with the EIS process is the critical next step in lifting this rule for good. I have always said that the Roadless Rule should have never been applied to Alaska, and by pursuing its amendmend, this Administration has once again proven their commitment to putting people and their livelihoods first. I am optimistic that this decision will allow for proper management of the Tongass to provide opportunities for tourism, fishing, and wildlife viewing as well as mining, energy development, and timber. The U.S. Forest Service has a multi-use mandate for its lands that includes a timber harvest, and defending this mandate is key to ensuring that Alaska is entrusted to Alaskans.”
In 2018, the Forest Service announced it would develop a state-specific Roadless Rule focused on the Tongass National Forest. The Alaska-specific rule would amend the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which established sweeping prohibitions on road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvest on inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands. The new rulemaking came in response to a petition from the State of Alaska requesting a full exemption from the 2001 Roadless Rule for the Tongass.
The Tongass spans nearly 16.7 million acres. It covers nearly all of southeast Alaska and is home to 32 islanded communities. For decades, successive layers of federal regulation, including the 2001 Roadless Rule, have continually restricted access needed for timber, mining, tourism, recreation, and the development of renewable resources such as hydropower. The result is a weaker regional economy that is largely seasonal in nature, with local communities facing fewer employment opportunities and higher energy costs.
Quoting a news release from the Alaska Delegation, the administration’s proposal of a full exemption is important to restoring balanced federal management on the Tongass. Inventoried Roadless Areas comprise about 9.5 million acres of the forest. Combined with other federal protections, none of which will be affected by this rulemaking, nearly 80 percent of the Tongass is currently off-limits to most forms of development or required to be managed as a roadless area.
Several members of the Alaska Senate Majority released prepared statements in response to the announcement.
“This is good news,” said Senator Bert Stedman, R-Sitka. “We’ve been challenged for years dealing with the forest service and getting our right of ways for road connections. This will be beneficial to extend the life of the timber industry until second growth timber is economically viable to harvest.”
“[Tuesday’s} announcement is a step in the right direction,” said Senate President Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage). “Opening our state’s vast resources to responsible development will improve the lives of Alaskans through family-supporting, good-paying jobs. I am also confident our state’s world-class regulatory structure will effectively protect our environment and continue to deliver positive results for our land and people.”
“Alaskans have a proven track record of taking care of our environment, while also being productive,” said Senator John Coghill (R-North Pole). “With access to the land, we could have a more productive timber industry and help the environment by reducing carbon output. Young trees are better at sequestering carbon than old ones.”
“I appreciate the U.S. Forest Service's willingness to open up public comment on the roadless rule in the Tongass National Forest,” said Senator Click Bishop (R-Fairbanks). “As a kid growing up in Ketchikan and Wrangell, I saw the benefits of a healthy timber industry to Southeast Alaska, and it would be nice to get back to that and get back to developing more of our renewable resources for the benefit of Alaskans.”
Rep. Dave Talerico (R-Healy), member of the House Resources Committee, said in a prepared statement, “I commend the decision to move forward. Hopefully, the alternative selected will allow communities in Southeast Alaska to resume responsible development of their timber and mineral resources, build necessary infrastructure for lower-cost energy, connectivity, and economic improvement.”
Not everyone is in agreement with the proposed Alaska Roadless Rule exemption. A coalition that includes Alaska Native people and Alaska-based and national organizations opposes the U.S. Forest Service plan, which they say comes weeks after revelations by the Washington Post that President Trump exerted pressure to allow new clear-cuts in the Tongass. They say the proposed plan will gut long-standing protections against logging and road-building in the Tongass National Forest, a cherished old-growth temperate rainforest in Southeast Alaska and homelands of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people.
The coalition says the proposed plan would repeal Roadless Rule protections across more than 9 million acres of the Tongass, dangerously weakening this national standard by enabling logging interests to bulldoze roads and clear-cut trees in areas of the Tongass that have been off-limits for decades.
According to the coalition, Alaska experienced unprecedented heat waves this summer and the Tongass serves as a buffer against climate change and as a refuge for salmon, birds and other wildlife. Much like the Amazon rainforest, the Tongass’ stands of ancient trees are champions at absorbing greenhouse gas emissions, storing approximately 8 percent of the total carbon in all national forests of the lower 48 states.
Logging the Tongass would threaten the health of Alaskan salmon by polluting rivers and streams, and by removing trees that help regulate water temperature, according to the coalition. Current Roadless Rule protections also extend to cultural and sacred sites of great importance to Alaska Native people, who rely upon the Tongass for spiritual and subsistence practices, according to the coalition in opposition to the proposed plan.
The landmark 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule protects more than 58 million acres of roadless national forest lands across the country. Those opposing the proposed plans say weakening this policy in Alaska will harm local and indigenous communities, Southeast Alaska’s economy, salmon fisheries, and wildlife.
More than 1.5 million Americans voiced support for the Roadless Rule during the original rulemaking process, which the coalition says followed decades of clear-cutting that had a destructive and lasting impact on the Tongass.
A coalition that includes Alaska Native people and Alaska-based and national organizations say the rule continues to receive overwhelming support in Alaska and across the nation. Recent polling shows that 61 percent of voters nationwide oppose exempting large parts of the Tongass from the protections of the Roadless Rule. In Southeast Alaska, 60 percent support keeping the Roadless Rule in place, more than twice as many as those who support a Tongass exemption. Two different polls were conducted; by Tulchin Research and Lake Research.
“We must holistically analyze the root causes of habitat destruction in the Tongass National Forest along with its directed social injustices, while quickly seeking solutions to the very real climate crisis today that is hugely impacting all the life on the lands we depend upon, including ours. We are the voices for the protection of the 2001 ROADLESS RULE. It must be coded into law for its own protection from industrial exploitation,” said Wanda Culp, Tlingit Activist, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) Tongass Regional Coordinator
“The world's largest remaining intact temperate rainforest containing vital old-growth trees is under attack because of efforts to undo the Roadless Rule. The Tongass Rainforest of Alaska—the traditional homelands of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Peoples—has been called ’the nation's climate forest' due to its unsurpassed ability to sequester carbon and mitigate climate impacts. For decades, industrial-scale logging has been destroying this precious ecosystem and disrupting the life-ways of the region’s Indigenous peoples and local communities. We stand with Indigenous peoples, Southeast Alaskans and allies nationally and internationally to say no to further old-growth logging, and yes to maintaining the current Roadless Rule. Our national forests are essential lungs of the Earth,” said Osprey Orielle Lake, Executive Director, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN)
“Relinquishing over nine million acres of protected national forest to feed the mouths of an industry that exports our old-growth forests overseas and provides free roads for mining development is not the future of Alaska for Alaskans,” said Natalie Dawson, executive director for Audubon Alaska. “It disregards decades of hard work by Alaskans to protect our remaining forests and salmon-rich waters for sustainable industries that actually exist and rely on healthy, intact forests, and their supported fish, birds, and other wildlife. This is the diversity that will drive the future of Alaska’s economy.”
“The push for an Alaska-specific roadless rule has always been just pretext for continuing to subsidize Southeast Alaska’s old-growth timber industry, and it will do so at the expense of recreation and fishing, Native communities, and wildlife,” said Andy Moderow, Alaska director at Alaska Wilderness League.“Moving forward with an Alaska-specific rule is wrong for the Tongass and wrong for Southeast Alaska. There are better ways to ‘meaningfully address local economic and development concerns’ than asking taxpayers to foot the bill for another hefty subsidy to Alaska’s timber industry, like addressing maintenance backlogs and permitting issues that will benefit the region’s booming tourism and recreation sectors, or stream restoration that will boost Southeast’s billion-dollar fishing industry and support the region’s wildlife.”
“The Tongass National Forest stores more carbon removed from the atmosphere than any other national forest in the country. The Roadless Rule has protected the Tongass rainforest for almost two decades,” said Josh Hicks, roadless defense campaign manager at The Wilderness Society. “By seeking to weaken the Roadless Rule’s protections, the Forest Service is prioritizing one forest use – harmful logging – over mitigating climate change, protecting wildlife habitat, and offering unmatched sight-seeing and recreation opportunities found only in southeast Alaska.”
"Efforts to undermine environmental protection for the Tongass National Forest not only put Alaska’s last vestiges of old-growth forest at risk, but also clear the way for even bigger attacks on forests nationwide. We cannot allow the Trump administration to log away our future and ignore the risks these rollbacks pose to Alaskan communities, forests and economy," said Kirin Kennedy, Deputy Legislative Director for lands and wildlife at Sierra Club.
“This is another Trump Administration attempt to roll back protections for wildlife and hand over public lands to private interests,” said Patrick Lavin, Alaska policy advisor at Defenders of Wildlife. “The public has overwhelmingly opposed this effort and made clear that the Forest Service should keep watersheds and habitats supporting sustainable resources like salmon intact, not auction them off to timber companies at taxpayer expense.”
“Hundreds of scientists have supported the inclusion of the Tongass National Forest in the National Roadless Conservation Rule due to its extraordinary subsistence wildlife, fisheries, and climate benefits,” said Dominick DellaSala, PhD, president and chief scientist at Geos Institute. “It is Alaska's first line of climate change defense and deserves full protection under the national Roadless Rule while at the same time the Forest Service implements plans to rapidly transition out of old-growth logging."
“The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that was released today trades on Southeast Alaskans’ vision for our collective future by prolonging and delaying our region’s transition away from a remnant timber industry on life support,” said Meredith Trainor, Executive Director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. “Nothing about the effort to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the National Roadless Rule makes sense for the future of Southeast Alaska. The proposed alternative contemplated in the DEIS threatens fish habitat and the fisheries they support; undermines tourism by damaging the landscapes our visitors come to see; destroys deep, wild, forested habitat relied upon by species other than our own; and lifts up the crown jewel of the National Forest system, the big old growth trees of the Tongass National Forest, and asserts that they are worth only as much as the lowest bidder is willing to pay.”
“President Trump’s attack on the Tongass National Forest threatens an irreplaceable national treasure,” said Eric Jorgensen, Earthjustice managing attorney in Juneau. “The millions of ancient trees across this temperate rainforest serve as the greatest carbon sanctuary in the U.S. national forest system, helping us all as a counterweight against the climate crisis. This ecologically rich landscape and critical wildlife habitat will be lost forever if industry is allowed to clear-cut our national forest. There is no good reason to roll back protections for the Tongass, and Earthjustice will oppose this attack on the safeguards wisely established by the Roadless Rule.”
“As a global climate crisis demands that we take urgent conservation and climate-mitigation measures, the Trump administration wants to do the opposite—and lay waste to some of our country’s most unspoiled wildlands that absorb massive amounts of carbon,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “For nearly two decades, the Roadless Rule has successfully shielded these magnificent natural resources, and we won’t allow the Trump Administration to destroy the rule—or that progress—in another taxpayer-subsidized handout to its friends in industry.”
“Alaska’s elected officials are selling out their constituents and robbing future generations by trying to strip protections from one of the most pristine old-growth forests in the world,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Alaska is already reeling from the effects of climate change. Clearcutting remaining old-growth trees in the Tongass National Forest would release significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and make things worse. This disastrous plan would smother vital wild salmon streams with sediment and irreparably harm subsistence hunters. It’s wrong to put private profits ahead of the health and future of Alaskans.”
The Forest Service is scheduling a series of public meetings and subsistence hearings. A list of those meeting locations will be available on the Alaska Roadless Rule project website.
The draft rule will be published in the Federal Register on Friday, October 18, 2019 opening a 60-day public comment period. Governor Dunleavy urges Alaskans to submit comments in favor of Alternative 6 and a growing Alaska economy between Friday, October 18 and December 17, 2019.
The public has until midnight Alaska time on Dec. 17, 2019, to submit comments on the documents. The documents are posted in the Federal Register and on the agency’s Alaska Roadless Rule website.
These are the ways the public can submit written comments once the notice is published on Friday:
The USDA said written comments will help inform the USDA as it moves toward a final decision about an Alaska-specific roadless rule. The Secretary of Agriculture is expected to make a final decision by June 2020.
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