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Some tribal governments say Alaska Roadless Rule decision moving too fast

Mar 21, 2019

The Tongass National Forest stretches across much of Southeast Alaska, including near Petersburg, Alaska, on Mitkof Island. (Photo by Tripp Crouse)

The U.S. Forest Service quietly hit another milestone in its ongoing efforts to consider building new roads in the Tongass National Forest. Last month, it received comments on an important document from cooperating groups.

The state has been providing feedback that could shape the outcome of the new rule, and so have Southeast Alaska tribes.

But some of the tribal governments say the timeline has felt rushed for a decision that could have a major impact on rural Alaska.

Joel Jackson, the tribal president of the Organized Village of Kake, said it’s impossible to separate the Tongass National Forest from the dinner table.

“That’s the way I was taught from my father,” Jackson said. “He never liked the word ‘subsistence’ either. He always explained it to me, it’s our way of life.”

And Jackson feels like that way of life could be threatened if new roads are built in the national forest surrounding Kake. Historically, large-scale industrial logging in the region damaged deer habitat and salmon streams.

Jackson said the village can’t afford to have its main food source jeopardized again.

“We have no other choice but to stand up and say, ‘No more logging. No more road-building in our area,'” Jackson said.

This decades-long battle isn’t centered on the roads themselves. For Alaska’s congressional delegation, it’s about access. Or, as Sen. Lisa Murkowski put it, making sure the Tongass is a “working forest.” Much of the remaining harvestable, old-growth trees are in areas that are hard to get to.

Last summer, Murkowski and a top federal official toured the last remaining large sawmill. And in August, the Forest Service announced it would revisit how — and if — the Roadless Rule should apply to Alaska.

Jackson said he wanted Kake to be a part of that conversation. The plans include Southeast Alaska tribes as cooperating agencies — providing crucial input.

But he said it hasn’t always felt that way.

“That remains to be seen,” Jackson said.

In February, the Organized Village of Kake and the other cooperating agencies received a robust, 500-page document, detailing the various options on the table for the Tongass. From one extreme to the other: from the Roadless Rule staying in place, to the Roadless Rule going away for Alaska. And of course, everything in between.

In any case, Jackson said it was a lot to take in for the small tribal government, and the Forest Service gave them just two weeks to make comments.

“We’re not lawyers or anything. We have to get help to understand a lot of what they’re saying,” he said.

Jackson said he asked the Forest Service for more time — a few more days, so the tribe could sort everything out and make meaningful suggestions.

“They said they had a timeline and they were going to stick to it,” Jackson said.

In an emailed statement, the Forest Service didn’t directly address why it didn’t grant the tribal government the extension. But it said there are other ways for cooperating agencies to participate.

Raymond Paddock, the environmental coordinator at Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said he thinks the Forest Service is trying to do its best with the directions it was given.

However, Paddock said, “It was definitely a rushed process.”

Central Council is also a cooperating agency providing feedback on the Roadless Rule.

But ultimately, the tribal government decided not to weigh in on this latest comment period because Paddock said they wanted to defer to the smaller tribes.

“Where we feel those are the most impact areas,” Paddock said.

The Forest Service is shooting for a summer release of its draft environmental impact statement on the Roadless Rule.

As for the Organized Village of Kake, they made the two-week deadline and got their comments in.

But Jackson said it wasn’t without a struggle.

“It just takes a lot of time to go page-by-page,” Jackson said.

Now he’s looking forward to getting back to another big project.

Kake is in the process of restoring a cannery with the hopes of attracting more small cruise ships.

Jackson thinks that’s the future, and he wants those visitors to be able to appreciate the old growth trees that are left.