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Attorney general says action needed against roadless rule

Posted: June 16, 2011 - 10:09pm
Attorney General John Burns speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce about the roadless rule in national forests during their luncheon at the Moose Lodge on Thursday.   Michael Penn
Michael Penn
Attorney General John Burns speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce about the roadless rule in national forests during their luncheon at the Moose Lodge on Thursday.

The roadless rule, along with the Tongass’ recent reinstatement by U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick, is creating quite a stir and is something the Alaska Department of Law and business factions aren’t ignoring. Attorney General John Burns said the rule can be detrimental to the state’s economy and the public must get involved.

Burns has taken a great interest in the matter, saying one of the Department’s core functions is to foster conditions for responsible development of Alaska’s natural resources, as well as protecting its fiscal integrity.

“Today, however, as you’ve heard many, many times, more so than at any time since statehood, Alaskans’ ability to manage and to responsibly develop its state’s resources is under an unprecedented and coordinated assault by federal regulatory agencies and environmental organizations,” he said.

Burns says invalidating the Tongass exemption from the roadless rule, which promotes conservation by limiting construction in designated areas, not only challenges the validity of Congressional stipulations, but immediately imperils the state’s economic future.

He said the rule disrupts the balance between protection and development, saying this will make 9.3 million acres of the Tongass off limits and also eliminates 98.9 percent of the Chugach National Forest from any type of development.

He said this effectively makes 92 percent of the Tongass “de facto wilderness” unavailable for development while Congress had stipulated enough Alaska land had been set aside through the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act and any additional lands must come before Congress, not through federal regulations.

“The application of the roadless rule in Alaska will have a devastating effect on Alaska unless it is challenged and rolled back,” said Burns.

He said the roadless rule in Tongass restricts everything from hydropower projects to mining to geothermal projects to highway construction. He said restricting development also damages transmission line maintenance, increasing costs.

He said the ability to provide energy at affordable rates is needed to diversify Alaska’s industry and that federal agencies don’t look at the practical implications of these decisions.

Timber is one of the most prominent industries affected. Burns said the rule makes it impossible for the Forest Service to produce enough timber to meet demand, thus violating the Tongass Timber Reform Act.

“Where is our timber industry? We’ve just written it off,” he said.

The attorney general outlined two options to combat the decision that he said are not exclusive, so can both be applied. The first is to appeal Sedwick’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The other option is to pursue a declaratory injunction “saying that there was no basis for it to begin with.”

He said it’s important to note the rule is a regulation, not a statutory rule obligated by Congress, saying, “That’s a very important, critical distinction.”

Burns said there are a myriad of challenges and opportunities that can affect the roadless rule and the court’s decision. One is outreach and cooperation with other state governments, attorney generals, businesses, tribes and stakeholders.

“Alaska can’t go it alone,” said Burns.

He said the other thing to do is develop an interdepartmental strategy for the legislative and executive state branches and state executive agencies.

The other challenge is to educate the public and redouble efforts with the Obama administration to engage in dialogue and decision-making. He said litigation would be a last resort.

“If we can engage up front, hopefully litigation won’t be necessary, but I will assure you that the State of Alaska will always stand up for its rights,” he said. “If we are to assure that we have a prosperous future, we’ve got to.”

Burns also stressed that organizations collectively must be informed and should themselves be vocal.

The Juneau Chamber of Commerce, along with a number of organizations, throughout Southeast Alaska, will be intervening in support of the state’s actions.

Burns said most chambers are “acutely aware” of the economic vitality of their communities, including how they’re tied to resource exploration, development and extraction.

Burns says that the state has faced several challenges from federal regulation overreaches, such as the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, and such federal expansions should be challenged when they affect economic integrity.

“There’s a clear need to diversify in our energy sources, to push from fuel to some other cleaner source, but in order to do that you can’t switch overnight. It’s not possible,” he said. “And so you grow things. You incrementally move forward.”

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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