19 months and counting on Tongass National Forest exemption appeal

The state of Alaska has been left to “sit and wait” for more than a year and a half by the federal court system, Alaska Assistant Attorney General Tom Lenhart said.

Lenhart gave an update on the Tongass National Forest’s exemption from the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to the Alaska Board of Forestry during its meeting Thursday. In 2011, the state “immediately” filed an appeal with the federal courts when they struck down the Tongass’ 2003 exemption from the Roadless Rule, reinstating restrictions imposed in 2001 on unroaded areas of the forest’s 17 million acres.

“It was atrocious, in my opinion,” Lenhart said during his presentation.

Lenhart said most appellants hear back from the courts within three to 12 months. Nineteen months have passed, he said, and the state has no word on the exemption appeal.

“All we can do is sit and wait,” Lenhart said.

Opponents of the rule say it blocks the state from millions of dollars of economic development in the country’s largest national forest. Proponents of the rule say the land and the animals that call it home need to be protected. The Tongass was exempt from the rule until 2011, when the Organized Village of Kake, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and other environmental organizations won a lawsuit.

Forestry board member Eric Nichols, of the Forest Industry Trade Association in Ketchikan, said Southeast Alaska’s economy is beginning to be “stifled” by the rule.

“There’s a lot of things that get put off until this thing comes into play,” Nichols said. “It’s starting to have an impact on Southeast.”

Lenhart replied that reinstating the Tongass exemption wouldn’t be a fix-all for the timber industry.

“Even if we win this, it’s no silver bullet for the industry,” he said. “That by itself doesn’t cut down a single more tree.”

Also at the board meeting, U.S. Forest Service Tongass Supervisor Forrest Cole gave an update on the new Tongass Plan Advisory Committee, which will amend the Tongass management plan to comply with the Roadless Rule.

Almost 80 people applied to be a part of the committee, Cole said. The Forest Service sent along 35 names to the U.S. secretary and undersecretary of agriculture, who will appoint 15 committee members and one alternate soon, he said. The committee will decide on a “proposed action” by May.

The goal of the group is to come up with a “narrowly focused amendment” that’s easy to implement into the current management plan, Cole said.

“If it was a complete revision of the forest plan there’s no way it could get done,” he said.

Cole said a draft of the amendment will be “on the street” in August 2015, when it will be up for feedback and edits. The new plan will be finalized in August 2016, he said.

“So far the stars are aligning in order to get the advisory committee set up and the amendment started,” he said.

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com.

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