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Plan emerging from Forest Service could undo Southeast Alaska logging limits

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has agreed to write a new regulation that could undo limits to logging in the Tongass National Forest, the head of the Forest Service testified Tuesday.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue plans to craft an Alaska-specific "roadless rule" that could allow more logging in Southeast, with the help of Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, Interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing chaired by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

A new regulation could be a major win for the timber industry and politicians who have spent nearly two decades fighting to exempt Alaska from the federal environmental regulation and a setback for environmentalists and others who have supported the roadless restrictions.

Murkowski had asked Christiansen for an update on a petition from the state for an exemption from the regulation. President Bill Clinton's 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Policy directive barred road construction on 58 million acres of wild, undeveloped forest lands, meaning there could be no logging, mining or other resource leasing or extraction that requires new roads.

To the ire of Alaska's congressional delegation, that includes the Tongass National Forest. It is the nation's largest national forest, covering 16.8 million acres of Southeast Alaska, and once supported logging as a major industry for the state.

The rule is designed to protect old-growth trees and sensitive habitats, and has fervent support from environmental groups.

In a conversation Friday, Perdue and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker "agreed to pursue a state-specific roadless rule to address the concerns as swiftly as possible on the Tongass National Forest and the access for timber, energy development and many other forms of access on the Tongass," Christiansen said. "So we are working closely with the state to align resources to get started immediately."

"It is certainly my hope that whatever that process looks like, it does not result in anything that's less than a full exemption from the roadless for Tongass," Murkowski said.

Murkowski said her "good friend" Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, "made clear to me that this is not an easy process, it is not a quick process, it is not a cheap process," based on his experience with a similar project in Idaho.

But the administration's decision represents a win for the rule's opponents where they have faced a long string of losses in their efforts to overturn the Clinton-era regulation. Most recently, a federal district court ruled in September that the Tongass National Forest should not be exempt from the roadless rule.

The state, along with the Alaska Forest Association, the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and the City of Ketchikan, argued that the rule violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wilderness Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. They argued that Agriculture Department didn't consider the needs of individual states when it crafted the rule, particularly for multiple-use management on national forest lands.

It was the latest in more than a decade of lawsuits over the rule that they say cuts off logging prospects in the Tongass, hobbling the economy in Southeast Alaska.

"I've always said I didn't think the roadless rule made any sense in a place …  that's just made up of islands — 32 island communities," Murkowski said, referring to the Tongass National Forest.

Mike Anderson, senior policy analyst for The Wilderness Society in Seattle, said Tuesday that any exemption to the roadless rule in Alaska is "totally unacceptable" to the environmental community.

"Alaska's roadless areas are very important to the nation, not just to Alaska and we will certainly make sure that people who care about Alaska's national forests have a strong voice in this upcoming process," he said.

The decision to launch a new regulatory process comes just after Alaska Rep. Don Young managed to include an Alaska exemption from the roadless rule in an amendment to the latest Farm Bill. That bill ultimately failed to pass the House of Representatives, but it could come up again this summer.

The Forest Service has already identified needed funding, human resources and expertise to get the project started, Christiansen testified. The agency is "in close contact with the state" on the project, she said.

A spokesperson for Walker did not respond to questions about the meeting.

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