State and federal officials inked an agreement Aug. 2 that could lead to scaling back the U.S. Forest Service’s long-debated Roadless Rule in Alaska.
The memorandum of understanding signed by Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack and Interim Forest Service Chief Victoria Christensen lays the foundation for the agencies to reopen the Roadless Rule on the prospect of working towards an Alaska-specific rule that could allow for more access to large swaths of federal lands that have ostensibly been off-limits to logging or other developments and activities since the early 2000s.
Approved in early 2001 by former President Bill Clinton, the Roadless Rule prohibited new road construction on roughly 58 million acres of undisturbed national forest lands across the country.
The “no new roads” edict has since been continuously challenged in court, particularly by western states that contend it has arbitrarily curbed logging and other activities on Forest Service territory and conflicts with the agency’s multiple-use land planning mission.
In 2015, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Alaska U.S. District Court decision to overturn a 2003 exemption to the Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest put in place by George W. Bush’s administration.
Alaska Division of Forestry Director Chris Maisch said the MOU to examine revising the rule was borne out of Gov. Bill Walker’s petition to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue for a full, statewide exemption to the Roadless Rule.
The MOU is focused in the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Dru Fenster, which encompasses the vast majority of Southeast Alaska and is by far the largest national forest in the country.
At 5.4 million acres, the Chugach National Forest in Southcentral is the second-largest national forest, but its timber is much less suitable for large-scale commercial logging.
The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation lauded the MOU in formal statements, insisting it is a big step towards getting “forest management and the economy of Southeast Alaska back on track,” as Sen. Dan Sullivan put it.
“As I have said many times before, the Roadless Rule has never made sense in Alaska,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Aug 2. “I welcome today’s announcement, which will help put us on a path to ensure the Tongass is once again a working forest and a multiple-use forest for all who live in Southeast.
“I thank Secretary Purdue for recognizing the need for economic relief in these communities and look forward to continuing to work with the administration, state officials, Sen. Sullivan and Congressman Young to see this process through to the finish line.”
Murkowski chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that covers the Forest Service budget and has inserted language to exempt Alaska from the Roadless Rule into recent budget bills for the agency. Those provisions have ultimately been stripped from the spending bills the president has signed.
Specifically, the MOU directs DNR and the Forest Service to establish a State-Forest Service Executive Steering Committee to carry out the agreement. The Forest Service will lead development of an environmental impact statement to analyze the effects of prospective management changes to the Tongass, while the state will form a public advisory group of representatives from Southeast tribes and Alaska Native corporations as well as conservation groups and the timber, mining, tourism and commercial fishing industries.
Colorado and Idaho are the only other states to have their own Roadless rules, but those came only after years of study and court challenges.
Forest Service officials said they plan to have the Alaska EIS complete within 18 months, in part to keep stakeholders engaged in the process.
Forest and fishing advocates criticized the agreement, claiming it will put some of Southeast’s largest industries at risk.
Trout Unlimited, which has pushed for permanent protections for dozens of critical salmon-bearing watersheds in the Tongass — its Tongass 77 campaign — contends the fishing and tourism industries rely on unspoiled wilderness in the region provided by the Roadless Rule and currently support 26 percent of all the jobs in Southeast Alaska in addition to contributing about $2 billion per year to the region’s economy.
TU Alaska Policy Director Austin Williams stressed in a formal statement that revising the Roadless Rule in the state would mean throwing out the 2016 Tongass Management Plan, which took more than four years to finalize.
The Tongass Plan calls for a transition to strictly young-growth timber harvest in the forest over 16 years, a period Murkowski and timber industry leaders argue is much too short to provide an adequate timber supply for Southeast’s few remaining sawmills.
“The current Tongass Forest Plan, which includes protections for Roadless areas, was monumental and was perhaps the first time a diverse set of stakeholders successfully came together around a common vision for how to move forward on the Tongass and leave the timber wars behind,” TU Alaska’s Williams said. “The overwhelming majority of Alaskans that participated in that process voiced a desire for increased protections for important fish and wildlife habitat. Rather than flushing that hard work down the drain, we should look for lasting solutions that protect the remaining roadless areas.”
Forest Service Associate Deputy Chief of Forest Systems Chris French acknowledged in an interview that any substantive changes in how the Roadless Rule is applied to the Tongass at the end of the EIS process will likely require another EIS to at least amend the Tongass Management Plan accordingly.
French said the MOU provides “a wide open space” for forest managers to consider changes in how the rule is used.
“It basically allows us a lot more flexibility in how we approach apply the protections of roadless that you see in the 2001 Roadless Rule,” he said.
Any rule changes could apply to the 57 percent of the Tongass that was designated as roadless in 2001. About 35 percent of the Tongass has been granted “wilderness” protection by Congress and as such will not be impacted by any changes to the rule. The remaining roughly eight percent is set aside for other opportunities, according to Forest Service officials.
“We don’t know what we’re going to propose yet. We don’t know what we’re going to hear at this point. We really want to start from the space of allowing folks to speak their mind; allowing folds to contribute their ideas — come to maybe some solutions — give us some proposals and all that will be considered as we go forward,” French said.
Alaska Forest Association Executive Director Owen Graham said in an interview that the organization had been pleading with the Forest Service to revise the rule, but also lamented the fact that easing the land-use restrictions likely won’t change on-the-ground work for several years.
“Just removing the Roadless Rule won’t let us cut one more tree because the Roadless Rule is in the forest plan,” Graham said.
He has been critical of the 16-year transition to young-growth-only harvests in the current Tongass Management Plan, insisting most young-growth areas in the forest are at least 30 years from maturity.
Graham said prematurely harvesting young-growth stands can necessitate cutting over twice the acreage to achieve similar harvest volume, as stands of smaller trees simply do not offer the same amount of usable timber as mature or old-growth stands.
“You have to have this economy of scale,” he said.
Graham also noted that old-growth trees provide opportunities for Alaska mills to produce specialty and value-added products while lower-grade, young-growth logs from the Tongass are almost always exported to Asian markets for processing.
State Forester Maisch said he doesn’t foresee old-growth harvests from the Tongass going away anytime soon, but also noted new technologies such as cross-laminated timber could open up new value-added opportunities around young-growth for Southeast mills.
Maisch also stressed flexibility in management as a driving interest for the state to revise the Roadless Rule, saying the rule’s impacts go beyond traditional forest uses.
“It’s about community access; it’s about energy; it’s about have the ability to be adaptable and flexible so we can make changes as technology changes,” Maisch said. “For example, cell towers and the need for cell towers in locations that are not so easy to do that in around communities right now. Hydro (power) is another good example. It’s difficult to build some of those types of utility infrastructures without having roads to support it for both construction and maintenance.”
Additionally, French said Purdue’s vision of the Tongass as “a working forest” — as the USDA secretary said during a July trip to Prince of Wales Island with Murkowski — is not strictly limited to logging.
“We also understand that industry is changing and the values that Alaskans hold for these lands is something that is changing as well and we recognize the importance that folks see with roadless. We also recognize the needs that other user groups and industry have for these lands. We want to be able to consider all of that,” French said.