The Biden administration said Friday it has begun a process to restore part or all of a rule that limits development in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
The “roadless rule,” which deters logging, mining and development in most of the nation’s largest national forest, has been opposed by the state government since its inception almost 20 years ago and aspects affecting Alaska were eliminated under President Donald Trump.
In a public notice, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will “repeal or replace” the Trump administration’s action. The notice said the decision is part of a broader environmental push by the administration of President Biden. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees national forests, will publish a new version of the rule in August, the notice said.
Tourism, environmental and fishing organizations generally support the roadless rule, as do several of Southeast Alaska’s Native tribes; they sued last year to preserve it. Other business interests generally oppose the roadless rule.
In a social-media message, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he is disappointed that the Biden administration will restore it.
“From tourism to timber, Alaska’s great Tongass National Forest holds much opportunity for Alaskans but the federal government wishes to see Alaskans suffer at the lack of jobs and prosperity,” he said.
The new rule is the latest in a series of major Alaska environmental actions taken by the Biden administration in its first six months:
-- On his first day in office, the president froze oil and gas leasing on federal lands;
-- In April, the administration paused public lands orders that would have opened 11 million acres to mining;
-- At the start of this month, it suspended oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The administration has also taken some legal actions that have upset environmentalists. It has filed legal briefs in support of the King Cove road, through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and in favor of a major oil drilling prospect in the National Petroleum Reserve on the North Slope.
But Alaska Republicans have generally been critical of the Biden administration’s approach to Alaska. In his annual address to the Alaska Legislature this year, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said the new president has an “anti-Alaska agenda” and that “Alaska is always the gift that national Democratic administrations give their extreme, radical environmental supporters.”
The Juneau-based Southeast Alaska Conservation Council has been fighting legal battles for two decades to preserve the roadless rule.
“If Biden were to give us some kind of sweetheart deal, we’d go a lot bigger,” said Meredith Trainor, the group’s executive director, dismissing Sullivan’s comment from earlier this year.
She said Friday’s announcement is a “really big deal,” but it’s too soon to tell whether the Forest Service will seek to restore the roadless rule over the entire forest or over only part. The agency considered but rejected a partial rule last year.
Under the federal process, the Department of Agriculture will publish a preliminary roadless rule in August, then take public comment. In a process that could take months or years, the department will work toward a final rule.
“We very much hope and put our trust in the Biden administration that they will repeal the rule and not replace it. We don’t want to see some phony compromise option, but we don’t think that’s their intention,” she said.
The past two decades have been marked by repeated lawsuits over the roadless rule. When the rule is in place, the state of Alaska, companies and pro-development groups sue to overturn it. When the rule suffers a defeat in court or is repealed, fishing, tourism, environmental and Native organizations sue to preserve it.
Dunleavy said the state “will use every tool available to push back on the latest imposition,” implying legal action that would fight the new rule. Earlier this year, he asked the Alaska Legislature for several million dollars in legal-defense funds to be used in anti-federal lawsuits, and lawmakers are considering that request.
Jim Clark, a Juneau attorney who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Frank Murkowski, is representing a group of business interests, the city of Wrangell and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, which have sought to eliminate the roadless rule.
He said it’s too early to determine the impact of Friday’s action.
“We have no idea what that really is going to mean in terms of how they’re going to go about it,” he said.
He said there is a misconception that removing the roadless rule means “a clear cut from Dixon Entrance to Yakutat and all the animals would die.” He has argued that mostly exempting the Tongass from the rule “will lift barriers to responsible development of an area the size of West Virginia.”
Special permits are still required to build in the Tongass, and he’s not aware of any new projects since the roadless rule was repealed last year.
The Organized Village of Kake is the lead plaintiff in last year’s lawsuit to preserve the roadless rule. Its president, Joel Jackson, said the forest is more valuable as it currently stands.
It takes hundreds of years to grow old-growth timber, and Southeast Alaska is home to the last large stands in the world. It benefits wild salmon and other wildlife and encourages tourism, in addition to its environmental benefits, he said.
“It is the last, largest temperate rainforest in the world, and it’s basically the lungs of the world. In that regard, it is very important to everyone, and it’s in our best interests to leave it be and let it continue to do what it’s been doing for thousands of years,” he said.