USDA plans to reinstate ‘Roadless Rule,’ $25M for Southeast aid

And back the pendulum swings.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture officially announced its plans to end old-growth logging in the Tongass National Forest and restore the contentious Roadless Rule development restrictions that agency officials just spent years repealing.

Dubbed the “Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy,” the Biden administration’s plan also calls for distributing $25 million in discretionary funding and technical resources to advance economic development and identify future priority investments, according to a July 15 statement from the USDA.

Agency leaders say they will organize a local group to consult with Southeast Tribes and Alaska Native corporations among other stakeholders to develop a strategy for the funding and other assistance.

“This approach will help us chart the path to long-term economic opportunities that are sustainable and reflect Southeast Alaska’s rich cultural heritage and magnificent natural resources,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a formal statement.

It was about nine months ago that USDA officials under the Trump administration finalized their full repeal of the Clinton-era Roadless Rule that, with exceptions, largely prohibited development across approximately 9.3 million currently undeveloped acres of the 17 million-acre Tongass.

Leaders of Sealaska announced in January that the Native regional corporation, which owns more than 360,000 acres across Southeast, would be making a transition out of the logging industry this year after a multi-year shift in its business model to focus on ocean-based food and tourism opportunities.

Sealaska acquired just more than 70,000 acres formerly of the Tongass in 2015 to fulfill the company’s land entitlement under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Company leaders then said that nearly all of the acreage was selected for timber harvest and management.

While timber is naturally the most recognizable resource industry in the forest, Alaska mining industry leaders and hydropower advocates have also pressed the USDA and Forest service to lift the rule — or at least exempt the Tongass from it — for years, contending that though the rule doesn’t outright ban their projects, the access limitations of the Roadless Rule often add greatly to the cost of the developments.

Both of the large operating mines in the region recently applied with the Forest Service to expand their tailings facilities and extend the life of their operations.

The advanced Bokan Mountain prospect on Prince of Wales Island would also be just the second rare earth element mine in the country. Rare earths are a suite of metals with unique properties that are widely used in small amounts in advanced technological equipment, phones, and national defense technologies.

Several Southeast Tribes and conservation groups backing the reinstatement insist the economy of the region has changed from timber-centric to being more reliant on fishing and tourism in the two decades since the rule was first enacted nationwide. They also note that Forest Service regulations allow for project proponents to apply for specific exemptions to the Roadless Rule, which the agency routinely grants.

USDA officials initially indicated their intent to reinstate the Roadless Rule in the Tongass in mid-June when the agency published a required notice for proposed rulemaking to reverse the Trump administration’s repeal.

At the time, Sen. Dan Sullivan called the move an “unacceptable whipsaw” in federal policy after the Trump administration spent two years analyzing the rule, though USDA leaders made their intent to fully repeal it, rather than develop a Tongass-specific rule, early in the process.

Sullivan called the $25 million economic investment in the region “simply a pay-off” for killing the long-term economic opportunities lifting the rule provided.

“Greater restrictions on the Tongass have been opposed for decades by all of Alaska’s governors and the state’s federal elected officials, both Republican and Democratic,” Sullivan said in a statement from his office.

“Let me be clear: $25 million doesn’t even come close to covering the economic damage that this administration’s policies will inflict on Southeast Alaska. Alaskans have the right to make a living, support our families, and connect our communities and have a much greater interest in seeing the Tongass healthy and sustainably managed than outside extreme environmental groups pulling the strings in the Biden administration.”

Backers in the timber industry of the Trump administration’s repeal finalized last October emphasized that in practicality just about 188,000 acres of additional old-growth would be made available for harvest — not 9.3 million acres — because the Tongass Land Management Plan finalized under the Obama administration in 2016 still applies.

The comprehensive Tongass land-use plan calls for a transition away from old-growth harvests to second-growth stands over about 15 years. It’s unclear at this point how the latest directive to end large old-growth sales will mesh with the 2016 plan.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
07/20/2021 - 5:43pm