The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to end development restrictions in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the agency announced Tuesday.
The proposal comes in response to a request from the state of Alaska and is the latest turn in almost two decades of debate, discussion and lawsuits over the proper use of the Tongass.
In a written statement, the Forest Service said it will soon open public comment on the proposal, which would create an exemption to the 2001 Roadless Rule that bans most development in the forest. Electrical companies, road builders, mining companies, shipping companies and logging firms have all previously sued to overturn the Roadless Rule in the Tongass.
The Forest Service proposal includes six options, but the agency’s preferred pick is “Alternative 6,” which would open 9.2 million roadless acres to development “and would convert 165,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres previously identified as unsuitable timber lands to suitable timber lands.”
Environmental groups criticized the proposal Tuesday, saying it could threaten wildlife and lead to the contamination of rivers and streams.
The forest, at 17 million acres, is the largest intact temperate rainforest in North America and the largest national forest in the United States. About 5.7 million acres of the forest have been labeled wilderness and would remain undeveloped.
Restrictions would remain in place for the Chugach National Forest near Anchorage.
The state of Alaska has consistently lobbied the federal government to lift development restrictions in the Tongass. Democratic, Republican and independent administrations alike have sought to exempt the Tongass since the Roadless Rule took effect almost 20 years ago. Alaska’s congressional delegation has also sought an exemption. Legal challenges by environmental groups have foiled those attempts.
Last year, then-Gov. Bill Walker petitioned the Trump administration to again exempt the Tongass, and the administration agreed to write a new regulation containing the exemption.
Following his election in November 2018, Gov. Mike Dunleavy renewed that push. The governor arrived in Alaska in 1983 to work in the Southeast timber industry, and he campaigned on a promise to develop Alaska’s natural resources in order to boost its economy.
In a March 1 letter to the president, Dunleavy asked for the Tongass to be exempted from the roadless rule.
“This would be a significant victory for the timber industry in Southeast Alaska and their efforts to increase the annual timber harvest, which creates jobs and fosters economic opportunity," he wrote.
Dunleavy pressed the president in person on the issue when Trump stopped in Alaska on a long-distance flight aboard Air Force One.
Speaking this weekend at the Valley Republican Women Chili Cookoff, the governor told the audience, “It’s a forest, folks, not a national park. It was created as a forest, meaning you go in there, you harvest trees, you can mine in there, you’re supposed to be doing other activities in there. But they’ve turned it into a park.”
“The president understands that if we can do what we’re supposed to do and use that forest for developing our resources, we can put people back to work,” Dunleavy said.
According to the latest available figures, the Southeast Alaska timber industry employed 337 workers in 2018. That’s less than 10% of its peak in the mid-1990s.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, all Republicans, said in a written statement that they were pleased by the announcement and thanked President Donald Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue for their work.
Republican state Sen. Bert Stedman represents southern Southeast Alaska and called the announcement “good news.”
“We’ve been challenged for years dealing with the forest service and getting our right of ways for road connections. This will be beneficial to extend the life of the timber industry until second growth timber is economically viable to harvest," he said in a written statement.
Democratic state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, who represents northern Southeast Alaska, said he is more interested in some of the other alternatives suggested by the Forest Service.
“I think a complete repeal has a lot of risks for our tourism industry, a lot of risks for our fisheries,” he said.
The National Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited and SalmonState also issued statements Tuesday opposing the Forest Service proposal.
“The proposed repeal of the Roadless Rule caters to the outdated old-growth, clear-cut logging industry and shows blatant disregard for everyday Alaskans who rely on and enjoy salmon, wildlife, clean water, abundant subsistence resources and beautiful natural scenery," wrote Austin Williams, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska legal and policy director.
Any action by the Trump administration will take years to implement, said Meilani Schijvens, director of Rain Coast Data, an economic analysis firm in Juneau.
In a report published ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, she wrote, “The final impact statement and record of decision will not be completed until late 2020 and will be subject to years of litigation.”
In order for timber sales to take place, she wrote, the Forest Service would also have to amend its 2016 management plan in a separate regulatory process.
“We’re not looking at something that’s going to rapidly make changes on the Tongass,” Schijvens said.