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Why the Tongass’ exemption from the Roadless Rule is good public policy

  • Author: Frank Murkowski
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 15
  • Published November 15

The Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. (Getty Images)

The 2001 Roadless Rule was the fourth time significant areas of the Tongass were set aside by the national government. Prior to promulgation of the Roadless Rule, the Tongass had undergone two congressional reviews (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 and Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990), as well as a 1999 USDA Secretarial review that in the aggregate set aside more than 6.8 million acres of the Tongass in wilderness status and other restrictive land-use categories. The USDA Roadless Rule’s general statement of purpose and need did not explain why, under these circumstances, there was a need for a fourth “national level, whole-picture” review of the Tongass. In fact, the Tongass was not actually added to the Roadless Rule until publication of the final rule in the Federal Register.

My administration stressed these points in settling the lawsuit with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in 2003 that Gov. Tony Knowles had filed in 2001. We also pointed to the fact that denying road access to 9.2 million acres violated the “no more” clause of ANILCA and deprived the Forest Service of its ability to seek to meet the market demand for timber as required by the TTRA. Finally, we emphasized the adverse socioeconomic impacts caused by the Rule.

In 2003, the USDA agreed to temporarily exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule because “the roadless values on the Tongass are sufficiently protected under the Tongass Forest Plan and the additional restrictions associated with the roadless rule are not required.” The 2003 regulation also stated:

“The Department has concluded that the social and economic hardships to Southeast Alaska outweigh the potential long-term ecological benefits because the Tongass Forest plan adequately provides for the ecological sustainability of the Tongass. Every facet of Southeast Alaska’s economy is important and the potential adverse impacts from application of the roadless rule are not warranted, given the abundance of roadless areas and protections already afforded in the Tongass Forest Plan.”

USDA’s substantive policy determination has never been challenged and is as true today as it was then.

Given that 6.8 million acres of the Tongass will still remain in wilderness status and other congressionally designated restricted land categories thereafter, it was entirely right to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. We don’t need 16.2 million acres of the 16.9-million-acre Tongass National Forest to be “protected” from the Alaskans who live in Southeast Alaska.

Nevertheless, some Southeast Alaska-based environmental groups contend that denying road access to almost the entire Tongass (an area the size of West Virginia) is the only way to “protect” it. They have convinced many people and the outside news media that total exemption will result in extensive clear-cutting. They are unable to explain why the Tongass was not overharvested during the 2003-2011 period when the Tongass was temporarily exempt from the Roadless Rule.

In fact, the Tongass Land and Resource Management Plans will continue to protect the Tongass through multiple-use management. Total exemption will restore only 186,000 acres to the suitable timber land base, which will do nothing more than restore flexibility to the timber sale program by allowing more economic timber to be offered for sale. The allowable sale quantity will remain at the level set in the 2016 Tongass Transition Plan. Road construction is estimated to increase Tongass-wide from 994 miles in the no-action alternative to 1,043 miles in the final rule over the next 100 years.

Total exemption will also provide an opportunity for development of other resources:

1. While “reasonable” access is allowed for mining in Individual Roadless Areas (IRAs), mining explorers often need road access to move heavy equipment from tidewater to a Project site or to otherwise economically proceed with exploring and developing a mine or a hydro facility. Such access will now be more readily approved for those operations which meet the strict environmental requirements of 36 CFR Part 228;

2. Road access to renewable energy projects (including geothermal to which road access was prohibited in IRAs) will now be authorized;

3. The Transportation and Utility System Land Use designation that was eliminated in the 2016 Tongass Transition Plan will now be restored to allow implementation of the State’s Southeast Transportation Plan; and

4. Cutting and removal of trees incidental to mining and renewable energy projects will now be authorized.

Because attaining the social and economic benefits of total exemption is the reason the state of Alaska, everyone who was a member of its Congressional Delegation since 2001, and a large coalition of organizations, including the Southeast Conference, sought total exemption as the Final Rule, it was the right public policy call.

Frank Murkowski is a former governor and United States senator from Alaska.

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