‘Roadless Rule’ repeal heads to court once more

The time has come once again to see if the latest attempt to abolish the Roadless Rule in the Tongass National Forest passes legal muster.

A host of Southeast Alaska Tribes, small cruise operators, commercial fishing and conservation groups collectively sued U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue Dec. 23, alleging the agency pushed through a pre-determined decision that contradicts its own analysis when it completely exempted the Tongass from the strict development limitations of the Clinton-era Roadless Rule in late October.

Attorneys for Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council argued in their Federal District Court of Alaska complaint that USDA and Forest Service leaders pushed the move to make more of the forest available and economically viable for logging through the National Environmental Policy Act despite conclusions in the environmental impact statement, or EIS, that the change would have little meaningful impact on the region’s timber industry.

In removing the Roadless Rule from the Tongass, the Trump Administration opened 9.4 million acres, a little more than half of the forest, to road construction to facilitate additional development, most notably logging.

While development proponents and Republicans largely hailed the de-regulation as a major victory, they also stressed it would only open about 188,000 additional acres — primarily old-growth — to timber harvest because of limitations in the 2016 Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan.

“(The agencies) project that, even with complete elimination of the Roadless Rule on the Tongass, the rule will not result in any new timber industry jobs on the Tongass over the next 100 years and regional impacts from the timber industry will remain the same with the exemption as without,” the complaint states, citing the Forest Service’s final Roadless Rule EIS.

Southeast Alaska’s once booming timber industry now provides about 370 jobs in the region, about 1 percent of regional employment, according the Southeast Conference. And with much of the timber harvest coming from Alaska Native corporation and state lands, timber sales from the Tongass currently support just 62 jobs, the complaint states.

Advocates of the rule regularly note that tourism and fishing have provided about one-quarter of the region’s jobs in recent years.

Additionally, the government’s insistence that lifting the Roadless Rule would not change timber harvest volumes is based on “arbitrary assumptions” that Forest Service leaders would direct managers to follow the forest-level 2016 Tongass land and Resource Management Plan, according to the complaint.

Finalized in the final months of the Obama administration, the Tongass plan lays out a strategy to move to limited old-growth timber sales in the forest in five years. Industry representatives contend, however, that even though they support a transition to largely young, or second-growth harvests there are not enough mature young-growth stands yet to supply enough timber for that fast of a transition.

The complaint states that the Forest Service has not followed the non-binding forest plan under the Trump administration, selling entirely old-growth stands in 2018, and has consistently offered more old-growth than young-growth stands in timber sales since then.

The coalition complaint also alleges that policy arguments claiming the Roadless Rule restricts mining, energy development and other community-level developments are baseless because those projects can explicitly receive exemptions that have nearly always been granted.

The Tribal plaintiffs — the organized villages of Kake and Saxman, the Hoonah Indian Association, the Ketchikan Indian Community and the Klawock Cooperative Association — further contend that agency officials conducting the EIS work at times refused to incorporate information provided by the Tribes in their work despite acknowledging its accuracy and rejected requests to hold formal consultations until after the pandemic.

The Organized Village of Kake withdrew as a cooperating agency after the October 2019 release of the draft EIS on the grounds that the Forest Service did not sincerely consider its input to that point.

Kake is a community of about 600 residents on Kupreanof Island in the central portion of the Tongass.

“We still walk and travel across this traditional and customary use area, which is vast and surrounds all of our communities to the north, south, east and west,” Kake Tribal President Joel Jackson said in a formal statement. “It’s important that we protect these lands and waters, as we are interconnected with them. Our way of life depends on it.”

Repealing the Roadless Rule from the largest national forest in the country was one of the last in a string of potentially major policy achievements for Republicans in Alaska during the Trump presidency, but the administration has had mixed results in getting its goals in the state to stick.

The Interior Department’s attempts to administratively conduct a land swap needed for a road through what is now the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula have twice been shot down in Federal District Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently invalidated the EIS approving the large offshore Liberty oil project on the North Slope, among other pro-development decisions that have been challenged in court.

Questions to the USDA headquarters press office were not addressed in time for this story.

The exemption originated from a request by former Gov. Bill Walker to Perdue in early 2018 to craft an Alaska-specific Roadless Rule, as had been done in Idaho and Colorado. It also was not the first time it had been tried.

The State of Alaska first secured an exemption from the Roadless Rule for the Tongass as part of a 2003 court settlement to a lawsuit over the rule’s applicability in the state with the Bush administration but that exemption was overturned by a Federal District Court of Alaska judge in 2011. Subsequent appeals and other attempts by the state and resource development groups to have the Roadless Rule invalidated proved fruitless.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

12/30/2020 - 8:23am