Forest Service affirms preference to repeal Tongass ‘Roadless Rule’
The Trump administration continued its agenda to aggressively open more federal lands in Alaska to development activity Sept. 25 with a recommendation for a full exemption from the Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest.
Fully repealing the Clinton-era prohibition on new roads across much of the national forest system would open all 9.2 million acres currently classified as roadless in the Tongass to potential mining, logging, and energy development, all of which are made much easier with road access in the forest’s predominantly mountainous terrain.
At roughly 17 million acres, the Tongass covers the vast majority of Southeast Alaska and is by far the largest national forest in the country.
The formal announcement from U.S. Forest Service officials of their preference for a full, Tongass-specific exemption from the Roadless Rule in the final environmental impact statement that examined six options — from status quo to the complete exemption — was welcomed by Alaska’s Republican leaders, but it was not unexpected. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials overseeing the Forest Service preferred a full exemption in the draft EIS review published last October.
While the state Southeast timber industry interests have been trying to lift the Roadless Rule from the Tongass unsuccessfully in the courts since it was applied in 2001, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the recommendation moves the region closer gaining improved transportation infrastructure, among other economic benefits in a prepared statement.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski noted during a Sept. 25 video conference with leaders of the regional development organization Southeast Conference even though the rule covers more than 9 million acres, repealing it will only make about 168,000 additional acres of old-growth timber stands available for harvest under the current land-use plan for the Tongass.
“It is about reasonable access for a wide variety of users,” Murkowski said, “It is for all pieces of the Southeast economy.”
The latest iteration of the Tongass Management Plan, which guides Forest Service timber sales and other on-the-ground activities, was approved by the Obama administration in 2016. Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Alaska timber groups have criticized the current management plan for pushing a shift from old-growth to second-growth timber unrealistically quickly before sufficient second-growth stands are ready for harvest.
Commercial fishing, conservation and some tourism groups insist Southeast’s economy has moved on from its heavy reliance on the timber industry as a fundamental driver, which mostly peaked in the early 1990s, and has moved to — at least before the pandemic — a base of tourism and fishing.
They also argue the Trump administration’s policy directly contradicts the vast majority of the public that has weighed in on the issue.
According to a Forest Service report detailing the nearly 270,000 comments the agency received late last year on the draft plan to repeal the Roadless Rule, 96 percent of the 15,909 unique letters supported maintaining the rule in full.
They contend that no specific projects seeking exemptions over the years from the rule’s requirements in the Tongass have been denied. However, Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables said the Roadless Rule has increased the cost of energy projects across the region — making some wholly unfeasible — simply by increasing access costs.
Meanwhile, the federal fiscal watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense insists the country has lost nearly $600 million from its Tongass timber sales over the past 20 years when adjusted for inflation.
Taxpayers for Common Sense totaled the Forest Service’s $632 million in costs for timber sale preparation, reforestation and road building and put that against the $33.8 million collected on a per board-foot basis by the agency from those harvests. Again, those figures are adjusted for inflation to 2018 values.
Trump administration officials from other resource agencies have similarly advanced broad rollbacks of development prohibitions on federal lands in Alaska. The Bureau of Land Management has championed multiple plans to open nearly all available federal lands on Alaska’s North Slope — most notably the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain — to oil and gas exploration and approved a 200-mile road to Interior mining prospects; the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has promoted making 90 percent of the federal waters off Alaska available for oil leasing; and the Interior Department has twice had its agreements to facilitate a road through designated wilderness of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge shot down in federal court.
However, the action on the Roadless Rule didn’t officially originate from Washington, D.C.
Former Gov. Bill Walker’s administration petitioned the USDA in 2018 to initiate the process to exempt the Tongass, on some level, from the Roadless Rule. While several attempts to legally invalidate the rule have fallen flat, Idaho and Colorado previously secured exemptions from aspects of the rule.
USDA and Forest Service officials now must wait at least 30 days before singing the record of decision to make the final determination effective.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].