USDA reinstates road work, logging restrictions to Tongass National Forest

USDA reinstates road work, logging restrictions to Tongass National Forest
Published: Jan. 25, 2023 at 1:59 PM AKST|Updated: Jan. 26, 2023 at 7:50 AM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A federal agency said Wednesday it is reinstating restrictions on road-building and logging on the country’s largest national forest in Southeast Alaska, the latest move in a long-running fight over the Tongass National Forest.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in late 2021 announced that it was beginning the process of repealing a Trump administration-era decision that exempted the Tongass — a rainforest that is also home to rugged coastal islands and glaciers — from the so-called roadless rule.

The agency on Wednesday said it had finalized that plan.

The new rule will take effect once it is published in the Federal Register, which is expected to happen Friday, said agency spokesperson Larry Moore.

The Tongass is roughly the size of West Virginia and provides habitat for wildlife, including bears, wolves, bald eagles and salmon.

Roadless areas account for about one-third of all U.S. national forest system lands. But Alaska political leaders have long sought an exemption to the roadless rule for the Tongass, seeing the restrictions as burdensome and limiting economic opportunities. They supported efforts under former President Donald Trump to remove the roadless designation for about 9.4 million acres on the Tongass.

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy on social media Wednesday said people in Alaska “deserve access to the resources that the Tongass provides — jobs, renewable energy resources and tourism, not a government plan that treats human beings within a working forest like an invasive species.”

Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola told Alaska’s News Source in an emailed statement that she remains “concerned” about the reimposition of the roadless rule for the Tongass, citing her belief that Alaskans should determine how to use their land.

“This rule could leave communities in the designated roadless area with even fewer options for economic activity and development, including crucial renewable energy projects that can’t be built or connected to local grids because of these regulations,” Peltola said. “We should be updating our regulations to account for the present and future needs of Southeast Alaska.”

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan accused the Biden administration in a statement to Alaska’s News Source of excessive overreach in issues involving the state.

“The Biden Administration has now unleashed 42 executive orders or actions targeting Alaska and the economic well-being of our citizens. No other state in the Union is getting such targeted and unwanted attention from the Biden administration,” Sullivan said. “I have repeatedly called on President Biden for a ceasefire in his war on Alaska’s working families, but to no avail. Alaskans in Southeast — like any Americans — have a right to connect their communities, sustain local economies, build renewable energy projects, and responsibly harvest resources. But the Forest Service’s return to the overly-burdensome 2001 Roadless Rule totally undermines all of those.

“My message to hard-working Alaskans who are being crushed and utterly disregarded by this Administration: I will fight this and other Biden Administration anti-Alaska actions with everything in my power.”

The Biden Administration has now unleashed 42 executive orders or actions targeting Alaska and the economic well-being...

Posted by Senator Dan Sullivan on Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement that the roadless rule should never have applied to the Tongass, saying there is no large-scale development threat from timber harvesting, and adding that the Biden administration’s decision is “federal paternalism at its worst.”

“With this decision, the Biden administration is turning the Tongass into a political football, where access changes with each new President and creates whiplash for those who might want to invest or build in Southeast Alaska,” Murkowski said. “We should see this for what it is: a regulation in spite of reality that will only serve to make it take longer, cost more, or outright impossible to develop the limited infrastructure — including renewable energy — necessary for a sustainable regional economy.”

The dispute goes back more than two decades.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in revisiting the issue, cited a directive from President Joe Biden at the start of his term to review and address rules enacted under Trump that might conflict with environmental and climate aims laid out by Biden.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement called the Tongass “key to conserving biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis. Restoring roadless protections listens to the voices of Tribal Nations and the people of Southeast Alaska while recognizing the importance of fishing and tourism to the region’s economy.”

The Alaska Department of Law released a statement condemning the act.

“This unfortunate decision is a blow to the economic and socioeconomic development of Southeast Alaska,” Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said. “It marks another bitter chapter in this long-running saga, once more forcing the State and its citizens to pay the costs of near-absolute preservation. It denies them the most basic and fundamental developments of society, which are taken for granted in nearly every other part of the country.”

Conservation groups cheered the decision.

“The Tongass Roadless Rule is important to everyone,” Organized Village of Kake President Joel Jackson said in a statement from Earthjustice, an environmental nonprofit organization.

“The old-growth timber is a carbon sink, one of the best in the world. It’s important to our way of life — the streams, salmon, deer, and all the forest animals and plants.”

Environment America Research and Policy Center Public Lands Campaign Director Ellen Montgomery applauded the decision in a statement.

“Our largest national forest provides critical habitat for countless birds, salmon and its ancient trees absorb staggering amounts of carbon,” Montgomery said. “The roadless area, 9.2 million acres, has been protected from logging since 2001. Thanks to the Biden administration, this critical forestland will have continued protection for decades longer.

“Now that this Trump era rollback has been restored, it’s time for the Biden administration to move to increase protection from logging for all old and mature forests across the entire country.”

The initiative SalmonState said in a press release that Southeast Alaska is in “an exciting new era.”

“The reinstatement is a core element of the U.S. Forest Service’s Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy — a new approach to land management and development that puts Southeast Alaskan communities and Tribes squarely in the lead,” the release said.

Alaska’s News Source contributed to this story.

This story has been updated with additional information.