The Juneau Chamber of Commerce and 13 other Southeast businesses and organizations will join in the state’s lawsuit against a federal rule that prevents road construction in certain areas of the Tongass National Forest.
The Parnell administration in June appealed a federal district court decision setting aside an eight-year-old policy that exempted the Tongass from the so-called Roadless Rule. The organizations plan to file as interveners in the case next week in federal district court in Washington, D.C.
The conservation policy was implemented in 2001, as President Clinton was leaving office. Then Gov. Tony Knowles sued the federal government. The state argued that the 1980 Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act – which preserved 115-million acres – also decreed that no more land could be protected in the state.
Two years later, the Murkowski administration negotiated an out-of-court settlement.
Jim Clark was Gov. Frank Murkowski’s chief of staff. He says under the settlement the Tongass was exempt from application of the roadless policy via a 2003 interim rule, with a final rule to come at some point after that.
Clark is now the attorney for the group that will file as interveners in the Parnell lawsuit.
He told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce yesterday (Thursday) the rule could prevent development of hydroelectric and other renewable energy projects, as well as mining and timber in Southeast Alaska, and even the proposed Lynn Canal Highway out of Juneau.
A number of utility companies have joined the case, including Alaska Electric Light and Power, Alaska Power and Telephone and Inside Passage Electric Cooperative.
“There’s no mention in the Tongass portion of the Roadless Rule about the impact that prohibiting road or reconstruction in the inventoried roadless areas would have on hydro power construction, transmission line construction from hydro sites to communities, or the maintenance of either one,” Clark says. “All that’s said is existing authorized uses would be allowed to maintain and operate within the parameters of their current authorization, including any provisions regarding access.”
Federal District Court Judge John Sedwick in May approved a list of energy and mining projects already underway as not subject to the Roadless Rule. Clark says all the projects are important, but he can find no authority in the rule that exempts them.
Environmental attorneys read the law differently. Buck Lindekugel of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council says the rule does not prevent other projects from going forward. SEACC and the U.S. Forest Service helped negotiate the list with the Justice Department. Lindekugel says it doesn’t need to be comprehensive.
“If you read the rule, the rule does not prohibit mining in roadless areas,” Lindekugel says. “It does not prohibit renewable energy development. And the court made that very clear when it issued its proposed order. And the reason we listed the projects in that proposed order was to clarify the flexibility of the rule.
Lindekugel calls the interveners’ argument “a lot of scare tactics.”
But First Things First Alaska Foundation President Neil MacKinnon says organizations that join the lawsuit are “trying to right the roadless wrong.”
“We see this Roadless Rule as probably the biggest economic impediment to the future of Southeast and it’s got to change or we don’t have a future,” MacKinnon says.
The foundation donated $5,000 to the litigation fund and is asking for other contributions. First Things First is a non-profit formed in 2009 to support resource development in Alaska.
Other companies joining the state’s case include Alaska Marine Lines, Southeast Stevedoring, Alaska Miners and Northwest Miners associations.
Clark, the interveners’ attorney, expects it will take 12 to 18 months before a decision comes from the federal court.