Petersburg assembly skips legal debate over Roadless Rule exemption for Tongass National Forest

A portion of the Tongass National Forest along Peril Strait is seen from the ferry Chenega in Sept. 3, 2015. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
A portion of the Tongass National Forest along Peril Strait is seen from the ferry Chenega in Sept. 3, 2015. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

Petersburg’s borough assembly on Monday was not interested in chipping in money to defend a Tongass National Forest exemption from the Clinton-era Roadless Rule. It didn’t even come up for debate or a vote for that matter.

The Trump administration last year granted a Tongass exemption to the nationwide rule that prohibits new logging and forest roads in parts of the national forest that do not have roads. It was something requested by multiple Alaska governors.

A coalition of environmental groups, tribes and fisherman sued to overturn that decision.

At a borough assembly meeting Monday, local resident Eric Lee testified in favor of keeping roadless prohibitions for the Tongass and against an exemption for the nearly 17 million acre forest.

“Language in the Roadless Rule is aimed specifically at preventing the construction of logging roads in areas that have not already been roaded,” Lee said. “It does not prevent the development of infrastructure projects in roadless areas. What it does do is make the permitting process for such projects more thorough, which is necessary to ensure the health of the forest. This is as it should be if we are to protect the forest that we’re all depending on.”

Alaska under Gov. Mike Dunleavy has intervened to defend the Tongass exemption and allow new logging and roadbuilding in undeveloped areas, calling those restrictions damaging. Others signing on to defend the exemption include the cities of Craig and Ketchikan, along with Southeast Conference, which is a coalition of panhandle municipalities and businesses. Some have agreed to contribute to that legal effort. Also on that side are former Gov. Frank Murkowski, shipping companies, chambers of commerce in Ketchikan and Juneau, and Juneau’s electrical provider.

Petersburg Mayor Mark Jensen asked for the assembly to consider contributing as well.

“Gov. Dunleavy welcomes support from Southeast communities and businesses in defense of the 2020 Tongass exemption rule drafted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October of 2020. Like it says here, I requested this to see if the assembly … the Petersburg Borough would like to support the Tongass exemption,” Jensen said.

Borough assembly member Bob Lynn moved to support the Tongass exemption but his motion received no second, meaning it doesn’t come up for a vote or any debate.

In recent years, the assembly has been pretty split over the topic, even voting down multiple resolutions for or against a Tongass exemption. In 2019, assembly members agreed to take no position on roadless.

But contributing to a legal effort wouldn’t have been a first for the Petersburg assembly. They voted last June to donate to the defense of commercial salmon trolling offshore of Southeast Alaska.

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