Tongass Roadless Rule exemption leaves subsistence users feeling left behind

The Tongass National Forest is the largest temperate rainforest in the country. With exceptions, the Clinton-era Roadless Rule restricted road building and industrial activity in around 55% of the national forest. Advocates for its repeal said it posed unnecessary hurdles to development projects, like logging, mining and renewable energy (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

The announcement on Wednesday that the Trump administration will lift protections against development in the Tongass National Forest sparked strong reactions. For many Southeast Alaskans who rely on the Tongass for food, the news is personal.

On a rare sunny afternoon in the Tongass, Chuck Miller showed me a spot near the water where his grandmother would often take him. He pointed out where they’d collect salmonberries, blueberries and huckleberries, giving Tlingit names for each.

“And then my grandmother would show me some of the plants we could use for medicinal purposes,” Miller said.

He eats many of the same foods as his ancestors. He hunts seal, collects seaweed, and fishes for salmon.

“I like to use the word Tlingit soul food,” Miller said. “It makes you feel good on the inside.”

He said he’s not political, and he doesn’t know all the ins and outs of what a full exemption of the Roadless Rule means for the Tongass National Forest, which is bigger in land area than the entire state of West Virginia. But anything that could threaten his subsistence way of life makes him nervous.

“If they allowed roads into certain areas where it affects our harvesting, I’m not a big fan of that,” he said. “You’re gonna get more population, more pollution and then some things might get overharvested.”

Chuck Miller poses for a photo near where he and his grandmother used to collect berries and medicinal plants. “Our Tlingit people have been eating food off the land since time immemorial. It’s a very important part of our culture,” Miller said. (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

Miller isn’t alone. At a U.S. Forest Service hearing in Sitka last fall, commenters advocated unanimously to keep protections for the Tongass in place. Subsistence users and environmentalists worry that opening more than nine million acres of the Tongass to potential development for logging or mining could disrupt vital habitat for the species many depend on like Sitka black-tailed deer and salmon.

Eric Jordan is a Sitka-based commercial fisherman, but he feeds his family salmon too. He recalls what clear-cut logging did to salmon streams and wildlife habitat in the last century.

“Around Southeast, the people who live here understand how damaging that was to our ecology, and they do not want it reintroduced,” Jordan said.

The immediate return of industrial-scale timber operations to Southeast isn’t likely, mostly for economic reasons. But that doesn’t ease Don Hernandez’s worries. He lives in Point Baker on Prince of Wales Island, and like many of his neighbors, a significant portion of what he eats is hunted, fished or gathered.

“Ten years down the line, depending on what pressures may come from industry, once the long-term protections are eliminated, we could see a push to have more large-scale clear-cutting on the Tongass again,” he said.

He chairs the Southeast Alaska Regional Subsistence Advisory Council, which advises the federal board on important hunting and trapping decisions on federal lands.

The Forest Service’s final environmental impact statement states that the full exemption of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass will have “minimal adverse and beneficial effects” on subsistence users. It posits that increasing road access could open up hunting and fishing areas to those who don’t have boats and spread subsistence use over a larger area, rather than concentrating it in more accessible places.

But Hernandez said he thinks the costs far outweigh the benefits.

“When you spend the amount of money that it takes to build a road in Southeast Alaska, you have to extract a lot of timber to justify building those roads. So it’s not just a small impact,” he said. “And yes it does provide access for subsistence users and people use the roads. But, over time, all the negative impacts from the road building and clear-cutting, it takes a toll.”

Proponents of the changes say they’ll allow for more economic development opportunities like mining, communications and renewable energy projects. But for many people who live in and around the nation’s largest temperate rainforest, it’s all about the long view.

Take Allysia Witherspoon. She, her husband and their two children live in Sitka and rely on hunting and fishing for a good portion of their household needs. She says they’re nervous about what the decision to roll back protections for the Tongass will mean long term for subsistence resources — especially after the lion’s share of Alaskans implored the federal government to keep the Roadless Rule in place.

“It’s kind of alarming that no matter what research has been provided and all the comments of all the people who live here that they would try to do the exact opposite,” Witherspoon said.

Wednesday’s decision to overturn Clinton-era protections for 55% of the Tongass could be challenged in court. Congress could also get involved or a future administration could start the years-long process of reinstating the Roadless Rule in Southeast Alaska.

Editor’s note: This story was produced as part of a collaboration between KCAW and Alaska’s Energy Desk. Erin McKinstry is a Report for America Corps member.