Alaskans make ‘Roadless Rule’ revision recommendations
Alaskans had their say and it’s in the feds hands now.
The Alaska Roadless Rule Citizen Advisory Committee has submitted 14 pages of recommendations to the U.S. Forest Service as the federal agency works to draft an Alaska-specific Roadless Rule for the roughly 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest that dominates the Southeast landscape.
The aim of the committee’s work and for the tailored rule is to establish “a land classification system designed to conserve Roadless Area characteristics in the Tongass National Forest while accommodating timber harvesting and road construction/reconstruction activities that are determined by the state to be necessary for forest management, economic development opportunities, such as recreation, tourism, energy, and mining, among others, and the exercise of valid existing rights or other non-discretionary legal authorities,” the committee’s report states.
It was borne out of a petition sent in January from former Gov. Bill Walker’s administration to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue requesting a full exemption from the sweeping Clinton-era Roadless Rule that timber interests in the state blame for crippling their industry.
That request spawned an agreement between former DNR Commissioner Andy Mack and Interim Forest Service Chief Victoria Christensen signed in early August that laid the foundation for the agencies to reopen the Roadless Rule on the likely prospect of reopening more Tongass land to development of some kind.
The 13-member committee selected by Walker — plus a Forest Service technical expert — drafted four new rule options along with a long list of specific exemptions for the Forest Service to consider in its likely rewrite of the 2016 Tongass Management Plan.
The four proposed Roadless Rule options include maintaining all existing inventoried roadless areas, or IRAs, except for those with roads that pre-date the rule; removing previously roaded areas as well as areas identified in the management plan for timber production and others where a modified landscape has been deemed acceptable; removing areas in timber production and modified landscape IRAs identified by conservation groups as critical salmon habitat conservation areas in addition to the other exemptions; and, most broadly, removing all IRAs that are not currently designated with a non-development land-use priority, according to the report.
The additional list of Roadless Rule exemptions for Forest Service officials to consider includes road projects to improve public safety; those for federal mineral leases that pre-date the 2001 implementation of the rule and operating mines; access to hydropower or other renewable energy and utility transmission projects; and roads for accessing fishery research, management and enhancement projects among others.
The 2016 Tongass plan emphasizes a shift to young-growth timber harvest in the forest, which Alaska timber industry representatives say they are not opposed to, but they contend it attempts to make the change too quickly before an adequate supply of second-growth stands will be mature enough for viable harvests.
Other development interests, such as utilities and mineral explorers, argue the Roadless Rule has ostensibly shut them out of new projects in the Tongass as well.
Advisory committee members were generally positive regarding the committee process, which included a series of three, multi-day public meetings held in Ketchikan, Juneau and Sitka in October and November.
Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference, a nonprofit regional development organization and an advisory committee member, said he thought everyone on the committee — from conservation-focused individuals to timber and mining representatives — participated with open minds with the goal of finding pragmatic solutions.
“For communities that are constrained economically and have transportation challenges (and) high energy costs being able to have access to the resources is really a consideration that needs to be made,” Venables said in an interview.
The Southeast Conference has previously advocated for an Alaska exemption to the Roadless Rule, but that was when it was an all-or-nothing choice, he noted. The organization is withholding an opinion now as the new rule is drafted.
Fighting solely for keeping the Roadless Rule in place as-is or a full repeal — options the Forest Service will also consider — isn’t very productive, Venables contends.
Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms, another committee participant, said he thought the process was productive as well and suggested a similar approach could be used in other longstanding resource management debates.
Specifically to logging, Thoms stressed that market forces have played a significant role in the downturn of the industry in Southeast since its heyday of the 1980s and early 1990s.
“The areas where there is economical timber are now very limited because of that logging that took place in the past. We have much fewer options now than were available in the past for logging as an economic driver and we’re going to have to work together and really figure out how to do logging in the best way if logging businesses are going to survive in Southeast Alaska because there are such few, limited options because of what was logged in the past,” he said.
“Roadless is one factor amongst many that are putting constraints upon the timber sector in Southeast Alaska.”
While the Roadless Rule did not explicitly ban timber harvest in many IRAs, it now requires helicopter logging and other less invasive but more expensive methods that often don’t pencil out.
Other committee members declined to comment further, opting to let the report speak for itself.
Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham followed the committee process though he was not on the committee. He said he will continue to advocate for a full repeal of the rule because it’s unclear how much more timber would be available for easier harvest under the proposed options.
Those specifics are the types of details that could come later in the process of amending the Tongass Management Plan. Forest Service officials have said they expect to have the amended plan complete near the end of 2019 or early 2020.
Graham said he could support committee “Option D,” which would open the most acreage to development, if an acceptable amount of timber opportunity is provided.
Venables said there was “healthy conversation about watersheds and fisheries” and protecting the tourism sector that has grown in the region as the timber industry has shrunk.
He emphasized that Southeast’s timber industry is not likely to return to what it once was, but at least sustaining its current niche of specialty products and export timber should be a priority.
“We didn’t finish a project. We started, I think, one of the most meaningful conversations that we can have with a group of individuals that could see a balanced solution and have well-reasoned conversations between developers and conservationists and folks that are just trying to make sustainable communities in the region,” Venables added.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].