COMMENTARY: Tongass holds wealth of resources in renewables, mineral exploration

Southeast Alaska is at a unique crossroads in its management of the Tongass National Forest.

How will reimposition of the 2001 Roadless Rule impact development of natural resources like geothermal, hydroelectric and mineral resources? As stewards of these public lands, we need deliberative and balanced Forest Service consideration of the best use of and access to these resources to protect and sustain Southeast communities, and their economic future.

The Forest Service needs to carefully consider the serious ramifications that reimposition of the Roadless Rule will have on our nation’s efforts to increase local, high paying jobs and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Currently, mines operating within the Tongass National Forest occupy a footprint of roughly 320 acres. Even if there were a dozen more mines their size scattered throughout the Tongass, they would only occupy 3,840 acres in the 16.9-million-acre forest.

Yet the future potential for the Tongass to help power America is enormous. For example, the Bokan Mountain Project is a rare earth prospect that would produce the minerals needed for batteries to power electric cars.

The final environmental impact statement, or FEIS, for the 2008 Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan pointed out that the U.S. Bureau of Mines had identified 148 locatable mineral deposits in the Tongass. Of these, 52 were ranked as having the highest mineral potential. Seven were ranked as having the next highest potential and at least one “critical” and “strategic” mineral.

In addition to the 148 Identified Mineral Deposits, the 2008 FEIS described 930 “Undiscovered Mineral Resource” tracts. However, no mine can be developed unless it: 1) meets the strict environmental requirements of 36 C.F.R. Part 228 as analyzed under the National Environmental Policy Act process and 2) survives the inevitable litigation testing whether the analysis complies with NEPA.

Mines making it through this process are not going to end hunting, fishing, and tourism on the Tongass, yet they will provide opportunities and jobs for citizens.

The benefits of mining are evidenced by the Greens Creek and Kensington Mines which, which combined provide more than 800 jobs with average annual wages over $115,000. Mining provides high-paying, year-round employment on the Tongass.

The potential for many more high-paying mining jobs on the Tongass is enormous. A 1991 United States Geologic Survey study estimated a value for discovered minerals of $37.1 billion, and a value for undiscovered minerals of $28.3 billion. Obviously, the escalation in metals prices that has taken place since has dramatically increased these numbers. So, clearly the Forest Service should be concerned about how reimposition of the Roadless Rule would affect mining.

The Response to Comments in the 2001 Roadless Rule interpret Section 294.14(d) in a way that creates uncertainty about the construction of roads to access future hydropower and support facilities in Inventoried Roadless Areas.

Some respondents were concerned about the impact of the rule on special uses and requested clarification regarding the ability to construct or maintain roads in inventoried roadless areas to access electric power lines or telephone lines, pipelines, hydropower facilities, and reservoirs.

The response was the proposed rule stated that the rule would not suspend or modify any existing permit, contract, or other legal instrument authorizing the use and occupancy of the National Forest System lands. Existing authorized uses would be allowed to maintain and operate within the parameters of their current authorization, including any provisions regarding access.

The 2020 FEIS identified 19 geothermal resources in Southeast Alaska.

“Because of the potentially significant environmental impacts that road construction could cause to inventoried roadless areas” the Final 2001 Roadless Rule denies access to new leases for geothermal resources (along with other minerals subject to the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920).

The Final Rule contained no discussion of the impact of the loss of geothermal energy to rural Southeast Alaska communities.

For these reasons the Forest Service (and public) should work toward a management result that acknowledges the opportunities provided by the vast wealth of multiple resources that surround us.

Work to solve real needs and access to critical resources, and not be swayed by the red herring of “large-scale old growth” clear-cutting which has not occurred for decades and still would not even with a full exemption.

Access for mineral exploration and renewable energy is essential to developing and maintaining vibrant communities, strong economies, and a healthy environment in Southeast Alaska.

Robert Venables is the executive director for Southeast Conference, the Economic Development District for Southeast Alaska. Southeast Conference plans for the success for each economic sector in Southeast Alaska. Bill Jeffress is a Mining Consultant and president of the Alaska Miners Association, a professional membership organization representing miners from across Alaska.

Updated: 
09/01/2021 - 9:14am