Press Release: Alaska Native Tribes, Southeast Alaska Businesses and Forest Advocates Defend Tongass National Forest’s Roadless Rule

Written by SEACC

January 30, 2024

Legal intervention seeks to retain forest protections that support Tribes, communities, and sustainable local economies

Earthjustice

A broad coalition of Alaska Native Tribes, commercial fishers, small tourism businesses, conservation groups — including SEACC — and other forest advocates are seeking to defend last year’s reinstatement of National Roadless Rule protections across the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska by intervening in several legal challenges opposing the rule.

The coalition of Tribes and forest advocates, represented by Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council, is intervening to prevent industrial logging and damaging roadbuilding on over 9 million mostly undeveloped acres within the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest.

When the Roadless Rule was reinstated last January on the Tongass National Forest by the U.S. Forest Service, the decision was widely celebrated by Tribal Nations in Southeast Alaska, across Alaska and nationally. The reinstatement decision recognized the need to preserve the Tongass’ roadless areas to protect cultural uses, enhance carbon storage, and conserve biodiversity, and noted strong and uniform support for the rule among Southeast Alaska Tribal Nations.

Despite the widespread popularity of Forest Service’s decision, the State of Alaska, two power companies and a coalition of business and industry supporters filed three separate lawsuits in September asking a federal court in Alaska to overturn the 2023 protections in favor of the 2020 Trump-era Roadless Rule excluding the Tongass.

Under the current Roadless Rule protections, sustainable economies that center the priorities of Tribes and local communities are taking root and flourishing. Overturning these protections would roll back progress toward a more sustainable future and bring back the threat of large scale logging, which is why 16 Tribes, businesses, fishing, and conservation groups are intervening in the lawsuits today to uphold the rule.

The rule, which recognizes that Southeast Alaska’s future depends on sustainable uses of the forest, is intended to prevent large-scale industrial logging like clear cutting and to conserve the region’s old-growth forests. Old-growth forests are central to the cultures, traditions and lifeways of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people, essential for climate protection and important for many purposes to many people, communities and businesses who live on or near the forest.

While the Roadless Rule prohibits logging and logging roads, it allows for other development projects, including hard rock mines, federal-aid highways, utility lines, hydropower projects and other energy projects.

“Southeast Alaska is the traditional homeland to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people and  has been for thousands of years, but in the last 200 years, we’ve seen tremendous changes — I’ve seen it change drastically in my lifetime — the Roadless Rule is necessary to protect and  respect our traditional homelands.”

Judy Daxootsu Ramos

Tlingit from Yaakwdáat Kwáan (Yakutat, Alaska), Raven moiety, Kwáashk’ikwáan Clan, Board Co-Chair, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council

Background

Situated in the southeast corner of Alaska, the Tongass is a temperate rainforest and the ancestral homeland of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. The islands, fjords, glaciers, and muskegs that make up the nation’s largest national forest provide some of the most rare and intact ecosystems in the world, providing critical habitat for wildlife including salmon, brown and black bears, bald eagles, flying squirrels, goshawks, and Sitka black-tailed deer.

These lands are integral to the ways-of-life of Alaska Native people in the region, who depend on roadless areas for hunting, fishing, gathering traditional medicines, and cultural uses. In addition, the region supports a thriving tourism industry and a local, sustainable, commercial fishing industry. Both industries depend on the forest’s intact ecosystem. The Tongass also serves as the country’s largest forest carbon sink, making its protection critical for U.S. efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to set a global example.

Originally adopted in 2001, the Roadless Rule is one of the most significant conservation measures adopted to protect the national forests of the United States. Applicable nationwide, it prohibits industrial logging and most roadbuilding in intact areas of the national forest system, with a few exceptions. Alaska’s Tongass National Forest was protected under the national rule in 2001 but was exempted first under the Bush administration and later under the Trump Administration. During the recent Trump-era rollback in 2020, the public submitted nearly half a million comments. Of those, 96 percent advocated for keeping Roadless Rule protections in place for the Tongass, and only 1 percent supported the Trump exemption.

In January 2023, in a much-celebrated decision, the Biden administration reinstated the Roadless Rule for the Tongass, protecting the forest once again from logging and roadbuilding.

The following Tribes and groups, represented by Earthjustice and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), are intervening to protect the Roadless Rule: Organized Village of Kake, Hoonah Indian Association, Ketchikan Indian Community, Organized Village of Kasaan, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, The Boat Company, Uncruise, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, the Wilderness Society and NRDC.

Read the full press release with additional quotes at Earthjustice.org.

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