A Trump administration decision to eliminate the Roadless Rule and open 9 million acres of Tongass National Forest to logging and road construction is drawing praise from Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Alaska’s congressional delegation, and condemnation from conservationists.
The final environmental impact statement released on Friday, Sept. 24 by the U.S. Forest Service notes that the Tongass is over 90 percent undeveloped and unavailable for timber harvest and road building. The preferred alternative in the EIS would allow for reverting a net total of 168,000 old growth acres and 20,000 young growth acres previously identified as unsuitable timber lands to suitable.
“Acres removed from roadless designation would continue to be managed by the Forest Plan and in accordance with applicable statutory instructions,” the EIS said.
According to the EIS, overall effects to fish habitat are expected to be negligible under all six alternatives and while localized effects on fish habitat may occur, they are expected to be minimal overall.
The Roadless Rule, a 2001 Clinton administration era policy, prohibited such development on 9.37 million acres of the nearly 16-million-acre national forest. Now that the review is released, a final decision is still to be made.
The announcement was welcomed by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Alaska congressional delegation, who said such action would benefit the economy of Southeast Alaska.
The action brings Alaska one step closer to opening the door to improved transportation infrastructure and broad benefits to the people and economy of Southeast Alaska, according to a statement released by the governor. The new rulemaking, in fact, came in response to a petition from the state of Alaska seeking full exemption from the 2001 Roadless Rule for the Tongass, the congressional delegation noted.
“This puts us on track for a Record of Decision and final rule by the end of the year, in turn opening the door for individuals and communities throughout Southeast to build a more sustainable economy while still ensuring good stewardship of our lands and waters,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska
Environmental entities, including SalmonState said clear-cutting in the Tongass would prove costly to the fishing and tourism economy of Southeast Alaska, as well as subsistence users, recreationalists and the long-term health of the region.
“The largest intact temperate rainforest left in the world, the millions of salmon, 650 million tons of carbon storage, and the people, businesses and jobs that depend on an intact Tongass National Forest are too important to throw away for a politically-motivated industry handout,” said Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState. “This reprehensible move disregards years of collaborative work in favor of money-losing taxpayer giveaways to an industry that was shutting down before the Roadless Rule went into place.”
The Tongass also provides vital habitat for wildlife, including bears, eagles, salmon, wolves and many other species important to the culture and subsistence lifestyles of tribes in the area.
The Forest Service decision ignores several years of comments from tribes, Southeast Alaskans and other Americans, according to SalmonState. It also endangers food security and salmon runs threatening $2 billion, on average, in economic benefit from fisheries and tourism in the Inside Passage, threatens traditional ways of life, and paves the way to eradiating one of America’s greatest resources in the fight against climate change, SalmonState officials said.
Andy Moderow, spokesperson for the Alaska Wilderness League, notes that the Tongass alone stores more than 400 million metric tons of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and sequesters an additional 3 million metric tons annually, equivalent to taking nearly 650,000 cars off the road each year.
“So why, with our climate in crisis and Alaska experiencing climate impacts more acutely than most, are we even discussing chopping down a natural climate solution and a regional economic powerhouse just to ship overseas?” Moderow asked.
A copy of the Forest Service EIS is at fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/109834_FSPLT3_5357355.pdf.