After months of speculation, Forest Service recommends lifting Roadless Rule for the Tongass

The Tongass National Forest near Wrangell, Alaska, 2016.
The Tongass National Forest near Wrangell, Alaska, 2016. (Creative Commons photo by Rob Bertholf)

The U.S. Forest Service announced Tuesday that it’s seeking a full exemption from the Roadless Rule of the Tongass National Forest.

The rule, which has applied to Alaska for more than a decade, makes it difficult to build new roads through national lands. But the U.S. Forest Service is proposing changes that could make Alaska the only state that doesn’t have to follow it.

Of six alternatives listed in the plan, a full exemption is the Forest Service’s recommended choice.

Alaska’s congressional delegation has long pushed for the full exemption in the state, saying there needs to be more access to timber and energy opportunities in the region.

Owen Graham, President of Alaska Forest Association, agrees. He calls Tuesday’s announcement a “great thing.”

“What we want is year-round manufacturing jobs and a lot more stability,” said Graham.

But, he says, this is just one step in the right direction. Retaliation tariffs placed on logs shipped to China have been hitting some sectors of the small industry hard.

Graham is uncertain how long it will take to see big systemic changes in how the Tongass National Forest is managed.

“Right now the industry’s just crumbling apart. There’s hardly anybody left,” he said. “Every year we lose more of our loggers because there’s not enough to keep everyone going.”

The Forest Service has been considering a range of options for the Tongass. But in August, the Washington Post reported that a conversation between Gov. Mike Dunleavy and President Donald Trump tipped the scales, and the U.S. Forest Service started working on the full exemption.

Joel Jackson, the President of the Organized Village of Kake, says he’s worried about what these changes could mean for his community. Kake is a remote village that depends on the wild food the Tongass provides. Historically, large-scale industrial logging damaged salmon streams.

“You know it’s sad that we have to continue to fight our own government to protect our forests and streams,” Jackson said.

He says the Organized Village of Kake is considering filing a lawsuit against the Forest Service. He suspects many other organizations will, too.

“We don’t throw our hands up in the air. We just buckle down and start talking [about] what’s the next step,” he said.

The full exemption would release 9.2 million acres of wilderness from Roadless Rule protection and open 165,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres to logging. The change would only apply to the Tongass National Forest. The Chugach National Forest would remain under the Roadless Rule.

According to Chris French, a top Forest Service official, this could change how the Tongass is federally managed and undo a 2016 plan amendment to move away from old growth logging in the region.

The U.S. Forest Service will publish its justification for the change in the federal register later this week.

The public will have a chance to weigh in on the proposed change, which is included in the draft environmental impact statement, until Dec. 17.

A final decision is expected to be reached by 2020.

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