Battle pits development against conservation interests

One side seeks economic opportunity, the other adverse impacts to the ecosystem

A U.S. Forest Service proposal to exempt Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule is pitting anew developers supported by the state’s congressional delegation and Gov. Mike Dunleavy against conservationists and many residents of rural Southeast Alaska.

The draft environmental impact statement on alternatives to roadless management and a proposed Alaska Roadless Rule released on Tuesday, Oct. 15 includes a preferred alternative to exempt the Tongass from the 2001 Roadless Rule. It would remove all 9.2 million acres of inventoried roadless acres and convert 165,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres previously identified as unsuitable timber lands to suitable timber lands.

Once the documents are published in the Federal Register, there will be a 60-day public comment period, running through Dec. 17, on the proposed rule on each of six alternatives outlined in the DEIS.

Alaska’s congressional delegation welcomed the news, as did Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Conservation entities and Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, in the Wales-Hyder census area of Southeast Alaska meanwhile called for a continuation of the Roadless Rule in Alaska without exemptions, citing environmental concerns.

“From our standpoint, Tongass National Forest is the lungs of the Earth,” said Jackson. “It converts carbon dioxide to the air that everyone breathes.”

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Maintaining that Roadless Rule with no exemptions is a battle the Organized Village of Kake has been fighting for nearly two decades.

“We sued the Forest Service in 2001,” Jackson recalled. “It was the state of Alaska that brought it to the Supreme Court. In 2003, the Supreme Court sided with the OVK and quite a few other litigants. After that, up to this date the state has attacked the Roadless Rule about every other year to get it overturned.”

To Jackson the issue is protection of lands that have provided the Tlingit people for thousands of years with sustenance for survival. We have always been protectors of our land,” he said.

The conservation nonprofit Trout Unlimited and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council share Jackson’s concerns.

“The proposed repeal of the roadless rule caters to the outdated old-growth, clear-cut logging industry and shows blatant disregard for everyday Alaskans who rely on and enjoy salmon, wildlife, clean water, abundant subsistence resources and beautiful natural scenery,” said Austin Williams, TU’s Alaska legal and policy director. “The Tongass is all of ours. Repealing the roadless rule would cast aside years of collaboration ad thriving businesses that depend on healthy forests, and usher in a new era of reckless old-growth clear-cut logging that pollutes our streams, hurts our salmon and deer populations and spoils the forest and scenery.”

“We think it is a wildly disappointing process,” said Meredith Trainor, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. “We want to make sure the people of Southeast Alaska are heard.”

During the scoping period last fall thousands of people came out in droves for hearings in over a dozen communities, she said.

“The turnout was very robust, and the vast majority were in favor of keeping the roadless rule on the Tongass,” she said. “The roadless rule keeps the forest intact to help protect salmon streams. It’s great for tourism, great for the commercial fishing industry.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation, along with the governor, see Southeast Alaska’s economy instead benefitting from an exemption to the roadless rule, which they contend hinders timber harvests, mineral development and energy projects.

According to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the roadless rule never should have been applied to Alaska.

“I am optimistic that this decision will allow for proper management of the Tongass to provide opportunities for tourism, fishing and wildlife viewing as well as mining, energy development and timber,” Young said. “The U.S. Forest Service has a multi-use mandate for its lands that includes a timber harvest and defending this mandate is key to ensuring that Alaska is entrusted to Alaskans.”

“This is important for a wide array of local stakeholders as we seek to create sustainable economies in Southeast Alaska,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Young, Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, praised the Trump administration for its efforts toward an exemption.

Dunleavy agreed.

“The ill-advised 2001 roadless rule shut down the timber industry in Southeast Alaska, wiping out jobs and economic opportunity for thousands of Alaskans,” the governor said. “I thank the USDA Forest Service and for listening to Alaskans wishes by taking the first step to rebuilding an entire industry, putting Alaskans back to work, and diversifying Alaska’s economy.”

Jackson meanwhile has no intention of giving up the fight.

“It’s a food security thing,” he said. “We don’t want it disrupted again by industrial logging.”

As a road builder for a logging operation for nearly 25 years Jackson said he got first-hand experience in building roads around his community.

“We didn’t realize the impact it would have on our salmon streams until we were done,” he said.

Kake, with a population of under 600 people, also is getting into tourism, he said.

“We are working to try to capture some of that (tourism) money and nobody wants to see logged off hills,” he said.

For about the past eight years Kake has engaged in ecotourism, greeting guests from small cruise ships, and the tourism business in Kake has grown, he said. An old salmon cannery in town is currently being renovating as an added tourist attraction.

Kake also has been working with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and has created its own comprehensive economic development strategy with community partners, aided by a grant from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“We live in a rural area that is hard to get to, especially since they took the ferry away,” he said.

The Alaska Marine Highway system’s winter schedule for service to Kake “is significantly reduced from regular winter service,” confirmed Meadow Bailey, assistant to the commissioner of Transportation and Public Facilities.

The schedule includes two northbound and three southbound ferry stops for all of October, three northbound and one southbound for November, two northbound and two southbound in December and no ferry stops at all for January and February of 2020. Ferry service resumes in March with three northbound and two southbound sailings, followed by two northbound and two southbound in April.

“The cost of everything from food to fuel to transportation and shipping are all double what anyone else pays in Alaska, so right now we want to protect our forests and steams because we live of the land,” Jackson said.  “We rely on deer, moose, bears, picking plants and berries and the streams that provide the salmon year after year.”

Forest Service officials said they are in the process of scheduling public meetings and subsistence hearings, which will be made available on the Alaska Roadless Rule project website, fs.usda.gov/roadmain/roadless/alaskaroadlessrule.

Written comments may be submitted on the web at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=54511, via email at [email protected], in the mail to USDA Forest Service, ATTN: Alaska Roadless Rule, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, Alaska, 99802, by fax at 907-586-7852, or in person at the Forest Service, 709 W. 9th Street, Room 535B, Juneau, Alaska 99801.

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