As Roadless Rule tug-of-war continues under Biden, both sides say little will change on the ground

Once a hot-button issue that epitomized the fundamental conservation-development debate across a large portion of Alaska, the continued fight over the Roadless Rule has become a better example of the bitter tug-of-war consuming much of the national political scene than a representation of what’s actually happening on the ground, according to some key stakeholders.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials in the Biden administration did their part to continue the fight Nov. 23 when they kicked off a 60-day comment period on their plan to reverse the Trump administration’s wholesale repeal of the rule, which was finalized just more than a year ago.

Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference, noted that while USDA and Forest Service leaders are asking for the public’s input on their proposal to flip the overarching land management regulations for the massive Tongass National Forest back to pre-Trump times, they have made their intent clear for months.

The Southeast Conference is a regional community development organization.

To that end, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the agency’s preference to reinstate the Clinton-era Roadless Rule in July as part of their “Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy,” which includes $25 million for short-term investment priorities identified by local communities.

[Biden officials to propose road ban on more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest]

Under the Trump administration, former USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue in 2018 similarly announced intentions to completely exempt Alaska from the 2001 Roadless Rule before a draft environmental impact statement analyzing a range of management options was published. The full repeal at least temporarily opened 9.2 million acres of the nearly 17 million-acre Tongass previously classified as roadless to more development activities, such as mining, logging and energy development, all of which are made easier and economic with road access.


USDA and Forest Service officials under Trump additionally disregarded recommendations by a group of leading Tongass stakeholders convened by former Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, who opposes the rule, for a scaled-back but not fully repealed Roadless Rule as a means of ending the political and legal challenges.

The regulatory changes apply only to the Tongass; the Chugach National Forest in Southcentral Alaska historically has not been used for large-scale timber harvests.

The State of Alaska first secured an exemption from the Roadless Rule for the Tongass as part of a 2003 court settlement to a lawsuit over the rule’s applicability in the state with the Bush administration, but that exemption was overturned by a Federal District Court of Alaska judge in 2011. Subsequent appeals and other attempts by the state and resource development groups to have the Roadless Rule invalidated proved fruitless.

This time, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski called the Biden administration’s move to reinstate the rule a “needless” decision that will impact numerous industries because of other protections already in place for the Tongass.

“It misses a genuine opportunity to work together to establish a sustainable regional economy. And it is exasperating, given that we just passed a historic infrastructure bill, that the Biden administration is intent on returning the Tongass to an overly restrictive environment where projects almost always take longer and cost more, if they can proceed at all,” Murkowski said. “Everything from the deployment of broadband to the development of more affordable energy stands to suffer under a return to the failed Roadless Rule.”

Alaska Forest Association leaders did not respond to questions in time for this story.

According to a Forest Service report detailing comments received in 2019 on the draft plan to repeal the Roadless Rule, 96% of the 15,909 unique comments the agency received on the plan supported keeping the rule in place.

Venables, who served on the state’s Roadless Rule advisory committee, said it’s unlikely anyone is surprised by the Biden administration’s actions, but it’s unclear what will change practically. He and other Tongass stakeholders said when the exemption was finalized that the continued political uncertainty regarding the status of the Roadless Rule would probably serve to stymie any now-enabled large developments.

“We were very much involved in trying to craft some compromise solutions towards Tongass management that we thought had really good merit for them,” Venables said of the advisory committee. “The local input rarely has the input you hope for.”

The Southeast Conference has long opposed the Roadless Rule, primarily for its restrictions on community-level infrastructure projects such as energy development.

“As long as the trees grow and people need wood and jobs (the Roadless Rule) will be a discussion item, and until both sides come together and agree on a custom compromise, it’s always going to be that back-and-forth, and here we are today,” Venables said.

Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms, who also served on the state advisory committee, said he’s pleased the rule will almost certainly be back in place, but what’s often more important is that there are adequate resources for local forest managers to address projects proposed in Roadless areas.

“In Sitka my computer and my lights are running off of a hydro project developed under the Roadless Rule,” Thoms said of the Blue Lake project. “With the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy I think we see there’s so much more we can do with the Tongass if the staff and management levels (in the Forest Service) are right.”

Alaska Forest Service officials said in mid-November that they received more than 270 investment proposals totaling more than $273 million in a separate comment period earlier this fall.

Timber industry advocates also contend that even with the complete exemption in place, the widespread clear-cutting of old-growth stands that many Roadless backers fear just won’t happen, in part because the forest-level land-use plan doesn’t call for it.

The Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan finalized in 2016 by the Forest Service allows for roughly 188,000 acres of timber to be harvested across the Tongass without the Roadless Rule, according to the record of decision.

Roughly 165,000 acres of old-growth stands, just less than 1% of the Tongass, is newly available for harvest under the total exemption, according to an analysis by the Alaska Forest Association.


Venables said he does appreciate federal officials attempting to address other sectors of the economy through the sustainability planning.

“It’s not all doom and gloom, but the (Roadless) conversation has been a hard one to have because the process hasn’t really been set up to hear and act on what’s been heard,” he said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at

Elwood Brehmer, Alaska Journal of Commerce

Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. Email him: