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In lawsuit, groups ask that ‘Roadless Rule’ protections be put back in place for the Tongass

Jan 5, 2021

Part of the Tongass National Forest on Douglas Island pictured in 2004. (Creative Commons photo by Henry Hartley)

A coalition including environmental groups, Tribes and fishermen filed a lawsuit to restore Roadless Rule protections to 9 million acres of Tongass National Forest.

Alaska’s governor and Congressional delegation applauded the Trump administration’s decision to exempt the Tongass from the Clinton-era Roadless Rule, which restricts development on federal forestlands. Supporters say the rollback will boost Southeast Alaska’s ability to log trees, extract minerals and boost hydroelectric energy production on federal forestland.

But a coalition of Southeast Alaska Tribes, fishermen and environmentalists argue the decision disregarded overwhelming opposition from Alaskans for the sake of a few hundred timber jobs.

Kate Glover, a Juneau environmental attorney with Earthjustice, says the U.S. Forest Service’s environmental review is fatally flawed. She says the rollback of the Roadless Rule was in part justified by helping Southeast Alaska’s logging industry.

“But their analysis shows that removing the Roadless Rule will not provide any additional jobs or income through the timber industry over the next 100 years,” she said. “And because they’ve made that assumption that there isn’t going to be any more logging, despite opening up all these acres to clear-cutting, they’ve failed to disclose the effects of the action through their environmental impact statement.”

The five Southeast Alaska Tribes that have joined the lawsuit all withdrew from consultations with the federal government in September, complaining that their input was being ignored.

Tribal president Joel Jackson of the Organized Village of Kake says the Tongass is his people’s traditional homeland. And the rainforest is tied to food security through subsistence hunting and fishing.

“We’ve lived here for 10,000 years or more,” he said. “And we’ve practiced our way of life, in these ports on these waters, all around our communities, and, you know, if we lose that, we’re going to lose part of our identity.”

The lawsuit also includes support from the visitor industry and commercial fishermen.

Linda Behnken of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka says Southeast Alaska’s commercial fishing sector depends on healthy forest habitat. A point reinforced in last year’s report by the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust.

“And there’s a lot of information there that really we drew on in saying, ‘Boy, the best value for the coastal communities in the Southeast economy is to keep this forest intact’ — particularly in the face of climate change,” she said.

For critics of the Roadless Rule, a court challenge was inevitable.

Jim Clark is a Juneau attorney and longtime political operative. He’s been working to overturn the Roadless Rule in Alaska since at least Gov. Frank Murkowski’s administration.

“I don’t think there’s really any reason for people to be frightened by the exemption we’ve had in the past and these problems haven’t occurred and that there’s no reason that will occur now,” he said.

That’s because he says the 2016 Tongass management plan and federal environmental laws remain in place to conserve the region’s natural resources. And he says that includes the projected 185,000 acres of old-growth forest that lifting the Roadless Rule could now be logged.

“And there will be litigation to double-check what the Forest Service does,” Clark added, “every time some kind of action is approved by the Forest Service.”

The federal lawsuit names U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue or his successor. That’s in recognition of the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Kate Glover  says a Biden administration could start the formal process of reinstating the Roadless Rule.

“We think they’ll recognize the importance of the timeliness for climate change for the whole world,” she said, “As well as the wrongs that happened to Tribes throughout this process and the importance of keeping the forest intact.”

But in the meantime, the lawsuit asks the courts to reinstate the Roadless Rule restrictions across Southeast Alaska.

Tongass National Forest spokesman Paul Robbins Jr. said  that as a policy, his agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Editor's Note: The photo at the top is a Creative Commons photo by Henry Hartley.