USDA announces preference for full Roadless Rule repeal

  • On Oct. 15 the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it has chosen a full repeal of the Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. (AP Photo/File/Juneau Empire)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is advancing toward a full exemption for the State of Alaska from the hotly contested Roadless Rule while a government watchdog group claims more timber sales in the Tongass National Forest will simply lead to more lost public money.

On Oct. 15 the USDA released a summary of the options being examined in the draft environmental impact statement aimed at determining to what level Alaska’s national forests should be exempt from the 2001 Roadless Rule implemented by the Clinton administration.

The full EIS has not been published, but the summary document indicates USDA officials have selected a full exemption as their preferred alternative from six options that ostensibly would allow for varying levels of development in the Tongass National Forest.

A full exemption would open all 9.2 million acres currently classified as roadless to more development activities, such as mining, logging, and energy development, all of which are made easier with road access.

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the roughly 17 million-acre Tongass, is a sub-agency to the USDA and the Roadless Rule exemption would only apply to the Tongass; the Chugach National Forest in Southcentral Alaska historically has not been used for large-scale timber harvests.

Local and national conservation groups said the land-use policy reversal ignores the economic transformation that has occurred in Southeast Alaska over the nearly 20 years since the Roadless Rule was put in place. They contend fishing and tourism — industries boosted by intact wild lands — have largely filled the void left by the region’s dwindling timber industry.

“Repealing the Roadless Rule would cast aside years of collaboration and thriving businesses that depend on healthy forests, and usher in a new era of reckless old-growth clear-cut logging that pollutes our streams, hurts our salmon and deer populations, and spoils the forest and scenery,” Trout Unlimited Alaska Legal Director Austin Williams said in a formal statement. “This proposed rule is a complete about-face from the direction we should be headed and reflects the fact that special interests and not common sense are guiding this decision.”

Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy and the members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, who have long called for the repeal of the Roadless Rule, said the USDA’s plan would help revitalize the economy in a region that long had a stagnant or declining population.

“Today’s announcement on the Roadless Rule is further proof that Alaska’s economic outlook is looking brighter every day,” Dunleavy said in an Oct. 15 statement. “The ill-advised 2001 Roadless Rule shut down the timber industry in Southeast Alaska, wiping out jobs and economic opportunity for thousands of Alaskans. I thank the USDA Forest Service for listening to Alaskans wishes by taking the first step to rebuild an entire industry, putting Alaskans back to work, and diversifying Alaska’s economy.”

Dunleavy often notes he first came to Alaska in the 1980s to work in Southeast logging camps.

In early 2018, former Gov. Bill Walker requested the USDA and the Forest Service work on exempting the Tongass from the rule, which largely prohibited new road building in undeveloped national forest lands, after numerous attempts through the courts to get the state exempted or the rule repealed entirely failed.

Walker’s administration assembled an advisory committee of Tongass stakeholders to issue recommendations on how the exemption should be crafted and their November 2018 report offered a suite of options for how the rule should be scaled back but it stopped short of pushing for a full exemption.

Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham said in an interview that the USDA’s move is welcome news, but he also noted that it would immediately open up just 165,000 acres of old-growth and 20,000 acres of young-growth stands for harvest without revising the Tongass Land Management Plan finalized in 2016.

He characterized it as “a temporary bandage on a burst artery.”

In round numbers, the acreage opened for timber harvests by the exemption would provide an additional 50 million board-feet of harvestable timber per year, according to Graham, who estimates more than 240 million board-feet per year need to be harvested from the Tongass to restore timber manufacturing in Southeast Alaska.

Without those economies of scale, loggers will continue to ship raw logs out of Alaska — mostly to Asia — without value-added processing.

The Forest Service currently offers timber sales authorizing the harvest of between 50 million and 60 million board feet per year from the Tongass.

Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference, a regional development group that has long advocated for scaling back the Roadless Rule, wrote via email that a full exemption without more detailed compromise will likely continue the see-saw battle between development and conservation interests.

“What has been missing, and is still missing, is a long-term sustainable plan for managing all of the Tongass resources,” Venables wrote. “Timber plays a small role within the resources needing to be accessed. The vast millions of acres of the Tongass will still never see a road or miss a tree.

“My hope is for the rhetoric to wane and the sustainable planning to increase. It will be a long process…unfortunately, it will probably be a loud process with a lot of litigation.”

Meanwhile, the Washington, D.C.-based fiscal policy group Taxpayers for Common Sense released a report Oct. 1 that contends the Forest Service has lost nearly $600 million — adjusted for inflation to 2018 dollars — from its Tongass timber sales over the last 20 years.

According to the report, the Forest Service recovered on average just 5.4 percent of the costs it incurred to facilitate timber sales and harvests in the Tongass since 1999.

Taxpayers for Common Sense totaled the Forest Service’s $632 million in costs for timber sale preparation, reforestation and road building and put that against the $33.8 million collected on a per board-foot basis by the agency from those harvests. Again, those figures are adjusted for inflation to 2018 values.

Taxpayers Vice President Autumn Hanna said in an interview that the group is not opposed to logging the Tongass, but she stressed the costs should be scrutinized at a time when the federal administration is pushing to open more of the Tongass to logging.

“This is a massive subsidy for the timber industry and we don’t think that this is justified in any way. The mission of our group is to look out for the public interest and make sure that we’re not just providing subsidies for industry,” Hanna said.

An Alaska Forest Service spokesman referred questions to headquarters officials in Washington, D.C., who did not respond in time for this story.

However, Graham said the report incorrectly characterizes road building, one of the more costly aspects of timber harvests in national forests.

According to the group, building roads to access harvest areas cost the Forest Service approximately $200,000 per mile of road.

He stressed that oftentimes roads needed to access timber are built too much more expensive multiple-use standards at the behest of other interests instead of being the very basic routes needed for timber trucks and equipment.

Graham also contends that changes to environmental requirements for timber sales have also driven up the costs.

“Environmental analyses have become extremely costly due to changes imposed by regulations and by the courts, but virtually all of these costly changes have resulted from pressure by environmental groups to reduce the scope of most projects and to require the agency to perform additional analysis,” he wrote in a response to the report.

Taxpayers representatives though argue the issue is not new. They cite a 1984 Government Accountability Office report that found 42 percent of Tongass timber sales in 1982 were below-cost.

The conclusions of the report should be factored into how the Forest Service implements any changes to the Roadless Rule in the Tongass, Hanna said.

“If this program can be reformed and we can look at what is going to generate revenue and where it does make sense to sell timber, that’s what we should be doing first before we continue year after year to blindly follow a program that’s costing us hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

10/16/2019 - 9:58am