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Empire Editorial: Roadless Rule is aimless

Posted: October 1, 2013 - 11:00pm

The Southeast Conference has jumped into the fray against a federal policy dumped on Alaska literally during the very last gasps of the Clinton Administration. The Roadless Rule makes much of the natural resources in our state off-limits.

Word came Monday from Southeast Conference Executive Director, Shelly Wright and Energy Committee Chair (and Juneau mayor), Merrill Sanford that the association of regional governments which met last month in Sitka supports Gov. Sean Parnell’s campaign to exempt Tongass National Forest from the rule.

The Conference came down on the right side.

Simply put, the 2001 Roadless Rule places strict prohibitions against building roads through the 58.5 million acres in the National Forest System. In the Tongass that covers limitations on 9.6 million acres, plus 5.6 million acres set aside as wilderness by another federal law, according to the Southeast Conference release. The forest itself is 17 million acres.

The rule’s intent was to provide protection to unspoiled areas. Its impact on our state, one with so much federal parkland and national forest, is to stifle needed projects and stymie the responsible harvesting of Alaska’s natural resources.

Lawsuits had been flying for years and Alaska lost the final legal battle in 2013.

So Alaska turned to legislation in 2011, and again this year.

As we reported on Sunday, a law introduced by U.S. Sen. Mark Begich in February to exempt Alaska form the Roadless Rule hasn’t moved from committee. The legislation would allow a road to be built to two proposed mines on Prince of Wales Island. One of them, the Bokan Mine, is an especially important project due to the rare earth elements dysprosium, terbium and yttrium that would be mined.

As Mayor Sanford noted in a Southeast Conference press release, heavy equipment for hydroelectric projects like 30-ton generators “can’t be slung from helicopters.”

“Geothermal leases are specifically prohibited within (inventoried Roadless areas),” Sanford said. “You can’t pursue biomass projects when you can’t cut trees within IRAs. Considering that a substantial number of communities in rural Southeast Alaska are paying over 60 cents/kWh for electricity generated by diesel fuel, we need to lower costs by making available these and other forms of renewable energy,” Sanford stated in the release.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski took U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell on a tour of the Tongass this summer and explained to him the economic unfeasibility of bringing equipment in by helicopter.

We hope that field trip will go a long way toward bringing Alaska some needed exemptions to a policy, and that Begich’s law breaks free from committee. The Roadless Rule hobbles the development of clean energy and restricts access to mines that would help America broaden its domestic production of rare earth minerals and other ore.

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