Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest exempted from national “roadless rule”
By MARY KAUFFMAN
October 30, 2020
Becoming effective yesterday when published in the Federal Register, the finalized rule will allow commercial logging companies to construct roads and harvest timber in about 9.4 million acres in one of the planet’s biggest temperate rainforests, removing protections put in place in 2001 during the Clinton administration via the Roadless Area Conservation Rul
Wednesday's announcement of the final federal action exempting Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from a national “roadless rule” represents hard-won liberation from inflexible federal mandates and a victory for the people of the state, said Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture has again acknowledged that the Tongass should be exempt from one-size-fits-all-national roadless policy,” said Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy. “This will help build community resilience and support economic recovery in a region that’s been hit hard by the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on tourism and other industries relying on responsible use of our natural resources and beauty.”
“It is immensely gratifying to see the Trump Administration act on what I and four previous governors have so long argued: Alaska is a unique land whose potential for our state and nation can best be realized only when we’re free from the unthinking application of one-size-fits-all national rules, in violation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the Tongass Timber Reform Act,” said Governor Dunleavy.
“The Tongass is home to many Alaskans who want what most Americans take for granted—the opportunity to live, work, and raise their families in the communities in which they grew up,” said US. Senator Lisa Murkowsk (R-AK)i, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “A full exemption from the Roadless Rule means access to more affordable and renewable energy to power homes and schools, access to technology at a time when more Americans are logging online for health care and education, and access for transportation and recreation to promote jobs and economic activity in the region—all while ensuring continued good stewardship of our lands and waters. I thank the USDA and Forest Service team for recognizing that one-size-fits-all federal policies are not appropriate in Alaska, and sometimes simply do not fit at all.”
Sullivan said, “These opportunities are finally back on the table with the finalization today of a full exemption for the Tongass from this overly-burdensome and out-of-touch regulation. I will always fight to take control from bureaucratic D.C. agencies and put it into the hands of Alaskans who rely on our lands to make a living and understand intimately the important balance of conservation and local economies. I commend Secretary Perdue and the administration for working closely with Alaskans throughout this process and bringing us to this historic day.”
Young said, "This Congress, I have been working closely with the President and senior White House staff to secure a Roadless Rule exemption for the Tongass. Not only has the Roadless Rule put an unconscionable economic and social burden on Southeast Alaska, it also violates ANILCA and the ‘no more’ clause by locking up land from the people of Alaska. Today's ROD is incredible news for our state and our economy, particularly in Southeast. I want to thank the Administration for working with me, our Congressional Delegation, Governor Dunleavy, and, most importantly, for listening to Alaskans. We know that this is the right thing to do, both for our economy and the health of our forests. I very much look forward to lifting the Roadless Rule and unleashing our state’s full potential. In Congress, I will always stand up for our right to manage our own lands.”
Imposed by then-President Clinton, the 2001 Roadless Rule prohibited road building and timber harvest, with limited exceptions, on Forest System lands managed for multiple use. Aimed at limiting logging impacts, the rule’s collateral damage included blocking other uses that could benefit from roads, including recreation, mineral development, tourism, subsistence and sport hunting, extension of utilities, search and rescue activities, and more.
After the state petitioned to exempt 9.2 million acres of the 17-million-acre Tongass from the rule in 2018, the Forest Service began an extensive environmental review process to guide creation of a new, state-specific roadless rule. As part of that process, the state established the Alaska Roadless Rule Citizen Advisory Committee to involve representatives of Southeast Alaska’s various interests, including Alaska Natives.
Last month, the Forest Service issued its final environmental impact statement, identifying a full exemption from the national roadless rule as its preferred alternative. Its issuance of a final Record of Decision (ROD) and the final Alaska Roadless Rule today formally establishes the rule as federal policy, effective immediately upon publication in the Federal Register.
Quoting a news release from Governor Dunleavy, final implementation of the Alaska Roadless Rule eliminates regulatory uncertainty that had inhibited many previous potential activities in the Tongass, and opens the way for a variety of projects, which themselves will be subject to rigorous federal permitting processes under the National Environmental Protection Act.
"It’s clear that this decision is what the Forest Service essentially admitted it to be in its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) - a politically mandated choice that ignores Southeast Alaskans, fishermen, Tribes, hunters, businesses, subsistence users and the vast majority of public comment in Alaska and across the nation,” said SalmonState executive director Tim Bristol.
Bristol said, “This decision is an ill-fated attempt to create a past that collapsed on itself, and ignores the actual, articulated needs of Alaskans, as well as the innovative leadership we need to be able to adapt to the challenges climate change presents.”
"96 percent of comments, overall, and 90+ percent of local, in-person subsistence testimony was in favor of maintaining protections for the Tongass. In addition, every single Tribe has resigned as a cooperating agency in protest over the way their valuable input has been ignored in this process. In a letter renouncing their status as cooperating agencies to the Forest Service Oct. 13, five Tribes wrote that “our participation in this process has not actually led to the incorporation of any of our concerns in the final decision. We refuse to endow legitimacy upon a process that has disregarded our input at every turn." said Bristol.
Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director, Defenders of Wildlife, released a prepared statement saying, “The U.S. Forest Service has taken an ax to one of the most popular and effective measures we have to conserve our national forest lands. Stripping roadless protections will destroy habitat for species like northern goshawks, brown and black bears, and the Alexander Archipelago wolf. With nearly 1 million visitors a year, clearcutting the forest will jeopardize wildlife and the real economic drivers of Southeast Alaska - fishing and tourism.”
Adam Kolton, Executive Director, Alaska Wilderness League released a prepared statement Wednesday saying, “In yet another sweeping attack on an iconic American landscape, the Trump administration today removed two-decade old protections for old-growth trees and habitat in the Tongass National Forest. This presidentially directed move, to gut roadless protections for our nation’s largest and most biologically rich national forest, is a calamity for our climate, for wildlife and for the outdoor recreation economy of Southeast Alaska."
“This new Trump plan sets in motion the potential clearcutting and export of centuries old Sitka spruce, cedar and western hemlock trees, unleashing the equivalent of two million cars worth of carbon pollution while costing American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in new subsidies for logging road construction," said Kolton.
Kolton said, “Stewarded by the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples for millennia, and set aside as a national forest by President Roosevelt in 1907, the Tongass is America’s Amazon. Its lush islands, towering trees, glacial fjords and estuaries support some of the highest concentrations of bald eagles, brown bears and wild salmon anywhere in the world.
“Taking an axe to old-growth protections for the Tongass is among the most reckless and irresponsible of the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks. It’s bad news for hunters and anglers, for the tourism and fishing industries in Alaska, and for anyone who cares about protecting our planet’s biodiversity and climate,” said Kolton.
Andy Moderow, Alaska Director, Alaska Wilderness League Action said, “Repealing the Roadless Rule just days before an election not only reeks of politics, but inept politics, by politicians that simply don’t understand the state of Alaska. The only October surprise here is that President Trump and Senator Sullivan believe it’s smart to support a full exemption of the Tongass National Forest from critical logging protections, when Alaskans have so strongly signaled this isn’t the future they want for Southeast Alaska.:
Moderow said, “Dan Sullivan saying that Southeast Alaskans ‘have seen their opportunity to advance vital renewable energy and mineral projects, build basic infrastructure and connect communities stifled for too long’ reveals that Dan Sullivan doesn’t understand the Roadless Rule. He’s claiming this massive rollback will fix problems that don’t exist. 100% of renewable energy projects, public roads, hydropower projects, utility connectors and access to inholdings (including mines) have moved forward, with approval time taking just 1-3 weeks. Meanwhile, opponents of the Roadless Rule have failed to demonstrate any concrete evidence of it impeding local projects, outside of vague assertions of communities being ‘stifled.’
“You’d think Sen. Sullivan would have learned his lesson when he was caught ‘sitting in the corner being quiet on the Pebble Mine prospect, despite the overwhelming and sustained opposition of the residents of the Bristol Bay region for more than a decade," said Moderow. "Apparently, though, it’s difficult for Senator Sullivan not to pledge his allegiance to large, outside corporations seeking to profit off Alaska’s lands and waters at the expense of wild salmon runs, the tourism industry, and the unique Alaskan way of life that an intact forest supports."
“A ‘vast majority’ of comments at Southeast Alaska subsistence hearings and those submitted online, along with six Southeast Alaska tribes, numerous community resolutions, and fishing interests alike supported keeping protections in place. Tongass old-growth provides the foundation for strong fisheries, tourism and recreation — the Alaskan way of life. This exemption threatens a sustainable future for Southeast Alaska so that an already heavily subsidized old-growth timber industry can continue exporting raw timber and local jobs overseas. Destroying old-growth forests is not a viable strategy for the future health of Southeast Alaska," said Moderow.
During its analysis, the U.S. Forest Service focused on three key issues: conservation of roadless area characteristics, support for local and regional socioeconomic well-being, and conservation of habitat and biological diversity.
The Record of Decision identifies the selected alternative, provides the rationale for the decision, and explains that the exemption does not authorize any specific projects in Alaska. Proposed projects must continue to comply with the 2016 Tongass Land Management Plan and be analyzed under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Tongass covers about 80 percent of Southeast Alaska and plays a critical role in supporting local and regional economies, promoting economic diversification, and enhancing rural community well-being.
Creation of a state-specific roadless rule means Alaska has joined with Colorado and Idaho as another western state with rules that recognize their special characteristics and federal law.
“I want to express my appreciation to the Forest Service, and to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, for their willingness to cooperate with the state and its people to craft a solution that protects the special values of the Tongass as a national forest, while accommodating the needs of Alaskans,” Governor Dunleavy said. “I also want to thank the members of our congressional delegation who have stood strong and united in support for this rule, and for the dedicated staff in state agencies whose diligence throughout this long process played a large role in making it a success.”
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