The state has filed two motions combating a federal court’s reinstatement of the roadless rule in the Tongass National Forest. One is a formal appeal of U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick’s decision invalidating the Tongass exemption to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The second is a declaratory judgment to the original rule’s validity that was filed in the District Court in Washington, D.C.
Alaska Attorney General John Burns discussed both of these filings as possible options for the state when he addressed the Juneau Chamber of Commerce last week, saying the rule makes 9.3 million acres of the Tongass unavailable for development. He said this, combined with other portions set aside, makes 92 percent of the forest off limits, as well as 98.9 percent of the Chugach National Forest.
Assistant Attorney General Tom Lenhart, who is leading the litigation, said the state is acting because the roadless rule will hinder state and local industry.
“The rule being in effect will have a dramatic effect on the economy. It will all but end the timber industry and have significant impacts on hydropower projects and anything that involves road construction,” Lenhart said.
He said the state’s view is that Sedwick ruled erroneously when the judge felt the U.S. Forest Service didn’t adequately explain its reasons for the Tongass exemption, which Lenhart said has a clear explanation in the record.
“We think that’s absolutely correct,” he said.
Tom Waldo, the Earthjustice attorney representing the plaintiffs in the appeal, said the state’s legal action reflects basic misunderstandings of how the roadless rule applies. He said the rule is beneficial to the Alaska economy, allowing flexibility for mining, highways, transmission lines and hydropower projects as well as subsistence and tourism.
“The roadless rule strikes a good balance for Southeast Alaska,” Waldo said.
“It primarily prevents further proliferation of expensive new logging roads and clear cuts into underdeveloped back country areas in the forest,” Waldo said. “The state portrays it as ‘de facto wilderness,’ which is not true. It’s still permissible to have all these.”
He said the new suit filed by the state is essentially the same as the one filed with the state when the roadless rule was implemented 10 years ago. This suit resulted in the Tongass exemption in 2003 that Sedwick just overturned. Waldo said taking the same argument to D.C. is an effort to get away from the fact it didn’t work on a state level.
Waldo is almost certain that conservation groups will eventually act against this new suit as well by their own motion.
The Juneau Chamber has also just passed a resolution opposing the reinstatement. The resolution states the roadless rule will adversely affect timber, mining, roads and other economic activities and that it violates Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the Tongass Timber Reform Act.
It also states the Chamber’s support of the appeal and urges the Obama Administration to finalize the Tongass’ exemption.
“The Chamber believes that any time you take away our ability to work in and among the forest that we live in, you’re hurting our jobs and our families, and it takes away local and legal management,” said Chamber Chief Executive Officer Cathie Roemmich. “It’s like they’re taking away our forest, and it’s our livelihood. That’s where we get our jobs and how we feed our families.”
Communications Director Dan Lesh of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, which was a plaintiff, said the rule aids high quality of life with an intact environment and ensures salmon runs that sustain the fishing industry, Native cultures and tourism.
“We’re disappointed but not surprised by the state’s decision. The fact is the Roadless Rule has no impact on projects currently proposed on the Tongass. Road building for timber sales has become uneconomical and the federal subsidies that supported these logging roads in the past have dried up,” Lesh said in an email. “SEACC has met extensively with Alaska’s congressional delegation and the Forest Service to ensure that important community projects are not threatened by this rule. We would prefer to work out our differences around a table instead of in a court room. While the state certainly has a right to appeal this decision, we feel that it is a waste of taxpayer money.”
Under the current schedule, Lenhart said the state’s brief for the appeal won’t be due until late September while the appellees’ won’t be due until about a month later.
• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or email@example.com.