Comment period on Tongass roadless rule exemption closing

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) — Alaskans testified in front of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources in Washington D.C. Wednesday regarding the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed changes to the Tongass roadless rule.

Alaska’s long-standing U.S. House Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said in his opening statement the proposed exemption is not about logging, as many have claimed.

“This is about communications. This is about other development in the area, if necessary. This is about mining, yes. This is about even roads – communications, connections to one another. It’s about power – clean power,” Young said. “I doubt if there are many more trees cut in Tongass, because no one can afford it because no long-term leases are being held.”

The Tongass National Forest was included in the Clinton-era 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. This rule prohibits tree harvest and road construction or reconstruction within inventoried roadless areas with certain exceptions, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service’s proposed changes “…would return decision-making authority to the Forest Service, allowing decisions concerning timber harvest, road construction, and roadless area management … to be made by local officials on a case-by-case basis.”

According to the Forest Service, the exemption would not directly authorize any ground-disturbing activities, and does not change projected timber sales from the region. However, some are skeptical about the potential cultural and environmental impacts of the exemption.

President of the Organized Village of Kake Tribal Council Joel Jackson is a strong advocate for maintaining the roadless rule to protect native homelands.

“Because these ancestral homes…my ancestors walked on that land,” Jackson testified to the House Committee of Natural Resources Wednesday. “And if my voice gets loud, it’s because I’m that passionate about what’s going on here."

Jackson said his village spent extensive resources participating with the Forest Service in the drafting of the proposed change exempting the Tongass from the roadless rule. He says the drafting process moved forward before they were able to reach an agreement, or before the Village of Kake could express formal opposition.

“We set aside our sovereign government to be cooperating agencies with the Forest Service. We had quite the misgivings of doing that,” Jackson said. “That cost us thousands of dollars -- thousands of dollars that we do not have as tribes. But it means so much to us that we did it.”

Channel 2 reached out to the Forest Service for a response to Jackson's claims but did not hear back in time for publication. Listed in the proposed rule change is a comment from the Forest Service: “USDA remains committed to working closely with States, Tribes, and others toward shared stewardship of National Forest System lands and resources.”

Jackson went on to say that Southeast Alaska cannot not handle another “boom-and-bust” era of aggressive resource extraction.

“So many people depend on things other than mining and logging, like fishing, like tourism. Those are going to be the most important things to our region, plus our way of life as tribes," Jackson said. “Without it, we’re going to lose our culture. We cannot afford to have any more devastation in our homelands."

The committee questioned Deputy Chief of the National Forest System Chris French, who testified on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-CA, was pointed in his concern for the environmental implications of the proposed exemption.

“Given the hugely important role that the Tongass plays in salmon production, how would an Alaska roadless exemption impact salmon habitat in the Tongass?” Huffman asked French.

"The draft Environmental Impact Statement looked at several key issues, and one of those being aquatic habitats and key fisheries habitat, including salmon," French said. "The reality is that there’s very little effect by the rule making on the habitats or production of salmon."

According to a press release from Geo-Institute, a membership organization created by the American Society of Civil Engineers, many scientists disagree with French's claim of little impact. Over 200 scientists from Duke, Princeton, Harvard, and numerous other universities have signed a formal opposition to the exemption.

"The region’s thriving subsistence and fishery-based economies depends on old-growth forests and roadless areas remaining intact," Geo-Institute's President and Chief Scientist Dr. Dominick DelaSalla wrote.

"At 16.8 million acres, the Tongass is the premier national forest within the 131 national forest system. Towering old-growth rainforests soak up the equivalent of at least 8% of all the carbon stored in national forests, while the Tongass’ roadless areas represent 16% of all undeveloped areas within the entire national forest system," DellaSalla continued. "Free of development, these forests allow all five species of Pacific salmon to replenish; abundant deer, wolves, bears and other wildlife find sanctuary in them. The region’s thriving subsistence and fishery-based economies depends on old-growth forests and roadless areas remaining intact."

Despite DellaSalla's claim of relative scientific consensus on the detriments of the rule change, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, have joined Rep. Young in support of the proposed change.

"I’m very pleased the administration has listened to Alaskans and is proposing a full exemption from the Roadless Rule as its preferred alternative," a statement from Murkowski reads in part. "This is important for a wide array of local stakeholders as we seek to create sustainable economies in Southeast Alaska."

“I am grateful that the Forest Service is committed to work with the State of Alaska and the people affected by its policies to create a more workable regulation that can provide for responsible economic activities to provide for Alaskans living in Southeast," Sullivan said in a statement.

The comment period on the proposed rule change and the draft EIS closes Dec. 17.

Comments may be submitted electronically here. Written comments can be sent hard copy to: Alaska Roadless Rule, USDA Forest Service, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, Alaska 99802-1628.

All comments, including names and addresses, are placed in the public record.

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