Plan to Restore Roadless Rule to Tongass National Forest Receives Kudos, Criticism

A Biden Administration decision to repeal or replace a U.S. Forest Service rule allowing road construction and industrial old-growth logging in Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska is receiving kudos from fishermen and criticism from the region’s economic development entity.

Remarks for and against a U.S. Department of Agriculture plan, which was prompted by the administration’s concerns about climate change, ranged from relief from commercial fish harvesters and conservationists to concerns from the state’s Southeast Conference over potential loss of jobs and economic development.

“This fisherman sure feels this is welcome news and most every fisherman in the region would welcome this news,” said Tyson Fick, a Southeast Alaska gillnetter and owner of Yakobi Fisheries and captain of the f/v Heather Anne. “I’m not that surprised. When they were talking about doing something to seriously address climate change, talking about getting public input on things, going back to having the Tongass roadless…not only for commercial fishermen, but locals in these areas.”

Fick said he understands there are logging interests.

“And there are ways to log better than others, but there is (also) value is keeping wild places wild,” he said.

Under the Trump Administration in October 2020, the USDA lifted roadless restrictions on over nine million acres of the 17-million-acre national forest.

Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables sees things differently.

“Once again, federal politics are playing ping-pong with the lives and resources of Alaskans,” Venables said. “Alaskans deserve regulatory certainty and access to the abundant resources that surround them in order to create local jobs, develop renewable energy resources and support tourism opportunities, especially as the economy struggles to emerge from the effects of the pandemic.”

Fisheries interests, already concerned over potential pollution from mines planned in British Columbia along salmon rich transboundary rivers flowing into Southeast Alaska, have said that they see as commendable an end to federal rules allowing for new roads to mines in the Tongass.

“The Tongass produces more salmon than all other national forests combined,” said Austin Williams, Alaska legal and policy director for the non-profit conservation group Trout Unlimited. Williams called the news a first step toward ensuring that such salmon production continues and that the fishing and tourism industries, which account for more than one in four jobs in Southeast Alaska, “will continue to drive Southeast Alaska’s economy.”

“The process that led to the Trump-era roadless rule exemption was overtly politicized and critically flaws from the start,” said Meredith Trainor, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC).

SEACC has stated that the announcement was part of a periodic update to the federal regulatory agenda and short of details, except to note that the process for doing so would be consistent with timelines laid out in President Biden’s Day 1 executive order calling for a review of rules promulgated during the Trump administration, with an eye to whether federal decision-making processes were followed and best available science was applied.

During the federally required public comment period, 96% of nearly half a million comments submitted to USDA supported keeping the roadless rule protections in place In the Tongass, they said.

But Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the state’s congressional delegation said economic opportunity would be lost if the roadless rule is reinstated.

“North to the Future means North to Opportunity, and we will use every tool available to push back on the latest imposition,” Dunleavy said.

“In Southeast Alaska, where the Tongass makes up the vast majority of the land case, the one-size fits-all roadless rule has restricted access needed for tourism, recreation, timber, mining, transportation and the development of renewable energy,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

“Any action to repeal the final rule and re-impost the roadless rule will cost jobs, diminish income, keep energy prices high, and cripple the ability of the communities in the region to develop a sustainable, year-round economy,” she said. “We need to end this yo-yo effect as the lives of Alaskans who live and work in the Tongass are upended every time we have a new president.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, both R-Alaska, also criticized plans to repeal the roadless rule exemption. Sullivan called the plan a “misguided decision” and “an unacceptable whipsaw in federal policy” that came just months after the Trump administration had struck the right balance between conservation and fostering opportunities for Alaskans.  Young called the plan “a devastating attack on our state’s economy.”