State of Alaska, cities, business groups file to defend exemption of Tongass from Roadless Rule

Tongass National Forest
Part of the Tongass National Forest on Douglas Island pictured in 2004. (Creative Commons photo by Henry Hartley)

The state of Alaska and a former governor along with a host of municipalities, trade groups and businesses have filed to defend the Tongass National Forest’s exemption from a Clinton-era rule that limits development on federal land.

The Trump administration decided to get rid of the Roadless Rule for the Tongass last year. Shortly afterwards, a group of tribes, conservation groups, fishermen and tourism companies sued the federal government, seeking to overturn the decision. They say the decision to lift the rule on more than 9 million acres of the Tongass is based on a flawed environmental analysis and ignores the input of Alaska Native tribes and the public.

But the state and the rest of the coalition looking to defend the exemption for the Tongass say the rulemaking process was proper and that an exemption is critical to the state’s economy.

“The Tongass holds great economic opportunity for not only Southeast Alaska, but the State as a whole,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a news release. “From resuming our timber industry to attracting tourism, this region has the potential to create good-paying jobs and it is my administration’s intent to defend our state’s rights and improve access to public lands.”

Robert Venables is executive director of Southeast Conference, an economic development group. He said projects in the Tongass are already held to high standards under state and federal laws and regulations.

“What really is the issue, in my mind, is having a conversation of, how does Alaska really access and control and have more of a conversation about how the forest is managed? Because this is very unique, where you have almost 96% of the region in direct federal control,” Venables told Alaska’s Energy Desk in a phone interview.

He said the Roadless Rule places unnecessary hurdles in front of development, pointing specifically to renewable energy projects. While developers can apply for exemptions to the Roadless Rule — and most are granted — he said the rule adds to the cost and time required to complete projects.

“This is not about extraction of resources. This is about every single economic sector meeting having unique needs for the forest, and we need a management plan that can reflect that,” Venables said.

Roadless Rule supporters disagree. They see increased resource extraction and development as an inevitable consequence of the rule going away in Alaska.

President Joel Jackson from the Organized Village of Kake said he’s concerned development could hurt the region’s other economic drivers.

“Our region, before COVID, was heavily reliant on tourism, and sport fishing, and commercial fishing and subsistence fishing. And it still is. And those areas provide way more jobs and more economic value to Southeast Alaska,” Jackson said in a phone interview.

Jackson said it’s also a threat to Alaska Native tribes’ way of life, since they harvest food and medicine from the forest and nearby waters.

Ketchikan’s city and borough have joined the state in defending the exemption. City Mayor Bob Sivertsen said development doesn’t have to harm the environment.

“Well, there are mitigations for everything we do,” Sivertsen said via phone. “We have the technology these days to do construction and other things that would lessen the impact on environmental issues, whether we’ve got to put in fish culverts, silt fences, the design and placement of the roads, all those types of things.”

Roadless Rule advocates say that logging and other development could accelerate climate change because the Tongass stores vast amounts of carbon.

Other parties defending the exemption include the city of Craig, statewide and Southeast chambers of commerce, electric utilities, shipping companies and resource development advocacy groups.

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