Tribal, environmental, fishing, tourism groups seek legal reinstatement of the ‘Roadless Rule’ inside of the Tongass National Forest

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Published: Jan. 7, 2021 at 7:28 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In a recently filed lawsuit, a collection of tribal and environmental groups, fisherman and members of the tourism industry are seeking reversal of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the federal “roadless rule.”

Read the roadless rule in its entirety here.

Following the USDA’s announcement in October, Gov. Mike Dunleavy voiced his support of the decision, saying, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture has again acknowledged that the Tongass should be exempt from one-size-fits-all-national roadless policy.”

Since 2001, the rule had prohibited the construction and repair of roads, while limiting timber harvests in around 9.2 million acres — a little more than half of the entire Tongass National Forest.

Ken Rait currently serves as the Public Lands and Rivers Conservation Project Director for PEW Charitable Trusts. Nearly 20 years ago, he was helped to organize a national campaign that led to the roadless rule being established.

“It is surprising that this far out, 20 years later, we are still having this fight about the Tongass,” Rait said. “It’s too bad because there is strong interest in keeping the roadless rule. The commercial fishers and indigenous communities of Southeast Alaska want to keep the roadless rule intact to protect their livelihoods and their way of life.”

According to Bo Rogers, who runs Timber Wolf Cutters in the Craig area, the rule has had a detrimental effect on Alaskan logging operations.

“There’s been lots of mills that have shut down because of this rule,” he said. “Ketchikan Pulp was a huge mill down here, and it is no longer — because that happened, a lot of jobs were lost.”

Plaintiffs in the case, like the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, are worried that the risk posed by removing roadless protections would jeopardize several other sectors of the economy in Southeast Alaska.

“It’s the most visited part of the state, and they don’t come here to see the clear cuts,” said ALFA Executive Director Linda Behnken. “They come to see a health ecosystem that’s so important here, they come here for the fish. That’s certainly what our industry depends on — access to healthy fish runs. It just seems like the economy has shifted and it’s taking decision-makers a little while to catch up.”

According to a collection of research published by the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, waters located within the Tongass National Forest produce 75% of the salmon caught in the region each year.

In response to requests for comments, the USDA’s communication coordinator provided a written statement:

“The Department of Agriculture announced the decision to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule after significant support from the State of Alaska and the Alaska Congressional Delegation and robust consideration of multiple alternatives and stakeholder views,” the statement read. “The Department believes that increasing flexibility for timber harvest and road construction and reconstruction on the Tongass can meaningfully address local economic and development concerns while balancing conservation needs of the forest.”

The USDA also noted that its decision did not provide specific authorization for any projects on the lands in question. Any such project would still need to comply with the 2016 Tongass Land Management Plan and undergo a separate environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Public court records indicate that the case has been assigned to Judge Sharon Gleason. Court dates had not been set at the time of this publication.

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