Yesterday, the State of Alaska and the US Forest Service signed a memorandum of understanding to initiate the process to develop an Alaska-specific version of the 2001 Roadless Rule, which currently protects some 9.2 Million acres of Tongass National Forest lands from being casually roaded for logging purposes. The addition of new logging roads to intact forest lands is widely understood and well-documented as having a profound negative impact on the quality of habitat, species diversity, and other characteristics of a natural forest that we contemplate when we think of a landscape that is truly wild.
This process is being initiated at the behest of the State of Alaska and signed off on by Governor Walker, and has been pushed for on the federal side by the members of the Alaska delegation – Senators Murkowski and Sullivan, and Congressman Don Young.
The goal of the Alaska delegation and the State of Alaska is to rollback protections from road building and clearcut logging for designated inventoried roadless areas under the 2001 Roadless Rule, and to do so on both the Tongass and Chugach National Forests.
Although the joint announcement promises to leave unaffected Tongass lands designated Wilderness by Congress, no mention is made of the fate of nearly 900,000 acres of Legislated LUD II lands designated for perpetual protection from logging and roadbuilding by Congress in the 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act and the 2014 Sealaska Lands Bill. In fact, the MOU specifically acknowledges that the Forest Service will “assess responsibilities” under the Tongass Timber Reform Act and other legislation that provides protection to our roadless wildlands.
This is a huge threat to the Tongass National Forest as we know it today.
Rollback proponents plan to publish a notice of intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the rulemaking process in the Federal Register later this month. Their listed target deadlines include a draft environmental impact statement by July 2019, a final environmental impact statement by April 2020, and a final decision by June 1st, 2020.
The MOU also identifies plans to form a state-led, yet-to-be-named public advisory panel, like the Tongass Advisory Committee formed for the 2016 Tongass Plan Amendment, with only one representative from an environmental or conservation group included, while mining and forestry each get a seat.
The signing of this MOU comes the day after the introduction of the Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2018 (S. 3333), a bill which would provide lasting protection for all inventoried roadless areas covered by the existing rule within America’s National Forest System, including the Tongass. That bill was introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell, along with 16 other Senate co-sponsors, in an effort to enshrine the Roadless protections in law and shield it and the forests the rule protects from the types of attacks we are now seeing from the Forest Service and the State of Alaska.
Since its adoption in 2001, the Roadless Rule has maintained the resiliency of our intact forests, provided key habitat for abundant wildlife, and safeguarded Southeast Alaska’s extraordinary salmon runs and the subsistence, commercial, and sport uses they support. Much-loved local treasures like Berners Bay, Chicken Creek on North Chichagof Island, Ushk Bay near Sitka, Port Houghton and Sanborn Canal near Petersburg, Cleveland Peninsula near Ketchikan, and the Honker Divide on Prince of Wales Island are all roadless areas.
This process is just beginning, but it is the wrong move for the State of Alaska, and for the federal Forest Service. The Roadless Rule works for land users on America’s National Forests and prevents the kinds of creeping incursions that turn a wild place like the Tongass into just another scattershot roadside green belt in the lower 48.
What’s clear this morning is that SEACC will be deeply engaged in this process from now through that June 1st, 2020 deadline and beyond. We will push to make the Alaska version of the Roadless Rule stronger than the federal rule, rather than weaker. We will work with our partners in conservation to continue to litigate the government’s actions as necessary, and we will be reaching out to you in the near future with opportunities to engage on the state advisory panel, in public hearings, and in trips to DC to make sure your voices are heard loud and clear.
For the forest –
Meredith and Buck
P.S. – Riled up? We are too. Make a contribution today to help us continue to staff up to fight this thing! We work hard for the Tongass, but when we head to DC, our membership matters. Your donation shows our delegation that we speak for you, and that together, we speak for our forest.