Plan to Restore Roadless Rule to Tongass National Forest Sparks 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 getting kudos from fishermen and criticism from the region’s economic development entity.

Responses 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, owner of Yakobi Fisheries and captain of the f/v Heather Anne. “I’m not that surprised.”

Sen. Maria Cantwelll, D-WA, also commended the decision.

“The salmon runs, carbon storage and tourism appeal that the Tongass currently provides will always be more valuable to Pacific Northwest communities than any subsidized logging projects,” she said.

In October of 2020, under the Trump administration, USDA lifted roadless restrictions on over nine million acres of the 17-million-acre national forest.

Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables sees it differently. “Once again, federal politics are playing ping-pong with the lives and resources of Alaskans,” he said, adding that Alaskans deserve regulatory certainty and access to the abundant resources that surround them, 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 transboundary rivers flowing into Southeast Alaska, 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 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.”

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 base, 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.”