Roadless advocates pack Tongass hearing

Governor Bill Walker’s advisory panel tasked with recommending ways to relax the U.S. Forest Service’s roadless rule is taking public comment across Southeast Alaska. At a recent hearing in Juneau, most people supported keeping the roadless rule intact in the Tongass National Forest

Part of the Tongass National Forest, between Wrangell and Petersburg, is seen in this view from an airplane in 2014. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

Gov. Bill Walker appointed the 12-member advisory committee to make recommendations to the state on where roads could be built inside 7.4-million acres of roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest.

In Juneau, more than two dozen people told the committee they didn’t like the idea of rolling back the roadless rule.

“Expanding roadless areas to make access for logging in Southeast Alaska amounts to a government subsidy of private industry,” said retired federal research chemist Jeff Short.

Juneau resident Carl Brodersen complained that the hearing was announced with little warning and held in the middle of a workday.

“It’s akin to holding a vote on a salmon issue during a king opening,” he told the committee.

Fly fishing guide Mark Hieronymus was among those in the tourism industry who have argued for keeping the roadless rule. He said people from the Lower 48 come to Southeast Alaska, “in greater and growing numbers for the incredible fishing opportunity in natural roadless settings still enjoyed here in the Tongass.”

A pair of supporters for more access also spoke out.

“I feel like I’m a weird duck sitting in here listening to all these people that really don’t know much about what’s going on out there,” Ketchikan City Councilman Dick Coose said. “But that’s beside the point. I’m retired forest service, 35 years.”

Coose was Ketchikan’s district ranger in the 1980s. He said there’s room for managed development in the Tongass.

“And my goal’s very simple: you manage a healthy forest, you have healthy communities and you have healthy businesses,” Coose said.

State Forester Chris Maisch presides over the advisory committee.

“Certainly, the weight of the testimony that we heard was not to change the rule, or in some cases, even to provide more protection,” he said in an interview.

The State of Alaska fought the nationwide 2001 roadless rule in federal court. The Bush administration granted an exemption. But the ninth circuit court of appeals struck it down in 2011.

An appeal filed in 2017 is pending in the D.C. Circuit Court.

Maisch said that makes the state’s position very clear: it’s against the roadless rule.

“And one way or the other the state’s been engaged in trying to overturn the rule since the day it was put in place,” Maisch said.

But on the ground the federal roadless rule is polarizing in Southeast Alaska.

The Tongass National Forest makes up most of Southeast Alaska (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

The Tongass National Forest makes up most of Southeast Alaska (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

“There’s a lot of passion around this issue,” said Brian Holst, executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council. He’s one of the 12 appointed to sit on the advisory committee.

Holst said the group hopes to find some compromise. The historic fight has been between keeping the roadless rule intact or doing away with it altogether.

“Our task is not to endorse either of those sides because both of those options are out there,” Holst said, “but is to generate alternatives somewhere in the middle and that’s challenging, that will be challenging.”

The panel doesn’t have much time to deliberate. It’s charged with crafting an Alaska-specific rule that would keep some areas roadless while accommodating areas for road building and development –principally logging – before the end of November.

Before that happens the panel will convene and hold meetings in both Ketchikan from Oct. 24 to 26 and in Sitka from Nov. 6 to 8.

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