The Alaska Congressional Delegation drew praise from a timber industry group and Sealaska Corp. for leading the charge against application of the federal 2001 Roadless Rule in Alaska’s national forests.
Environmental groups, however, were less enthused.
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich and Republican Rep. Don Young this week introduced legislation to repeal the rule in Alaska’s national forests. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski co-sponsored the Senate measure.
At issue is re-implementation and enforcement of the U.S. Forest Service’s conservation policy that limits road construction on designated public lands on the theory roads bring negative environmental impacts to the lands around them.
Timber industry advocates say the roads also bring vital access to timber lands.
There has been much litigation over the Roadless Rule. In March the federal district court nixed a previously-granted exemption and reinstated the rule in the Tongass National Forest. The legislation introduced today would prevent use of the rule in planning and decision making for both the Chugach and Tongass National forests.
Almost all of Alaska’s forests are protected under existing federal law, and that makes things tough for the timber industry, said Owen Graham of the Alaska Forest Association.
“That doesn’t leave much room for development,” Graham said. He said the restrictions are damaging to the state’s timber industry, and praised Alaska’s D.C. delegation for pursuing the exemption.
Legislators agree, but say there’s more at stake than the timber industry.
“This cookie-cutter rule is a bad fit for Alaska,” Begich said in a joint press release from the delegation. “With high unemployment and high energy costs in Southeast Alaska, the Forest Service needs greater flexibility to address these issues. Repealing the rule will help keep the few existing mills alive and allow for the development of hydro projects throughout the region as well as two promising mining projects on Prince of Wales Island. Instead of adding options, the Roadless Rule takes them away.”
“The Roadless Rule was ill-conceived and based on a one-size-fits-all theory,” Young said. “As we have seen time and time again, the one-size-fits-all approach rarely ever applies to Alaska. The economic well-being and way of life for many Alaskans relies on responsible resource development and this legislation will ensure that this rule doesn’t harm Alaska more than it already has. Over the last few decades I have watched the timber industry go from thousands of jobs to nothing; we cannot allow the government to decimate this area more than they already have. This legislation is an economic necessity so that Alaskans may start to responsibly develop our resources in these areas again.”
The group Earthjustice sees the legislation as an attack on treasured rainforests. Its attorney said yesterday the Roadless Rule has enough flexibility to allow for new mining and hydropower projects — it just doesn’t allow new back country logging roads for timber clear cuts.
“Nowhere is the Roadless Rule more important than in Alaska,” said Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice. “The Tongass and Chugach contain some of the most substantial, intact expanses of temperate rainforest in the world. Congress must reject this attack on our national treasures.”
Commercial fishing and tourism are by far the largest private employers in the Tongass and Chugach, Waldo said.
The Roadless Rule currently protects 9.3 million acres in the Tongass and 5.6 million acres in the Chugach from logging and new roads, while providing flexibility for needed economic development in rural communities of the region, Waldo said.
By contrast, Waldo said, the Tongass timber program has lost nearly a billion dollars in the last three decades, much of that from building roads in remote roadless areas for the benefit of just a few timber companies.
Waldo said that through the federal Freedom of Information Act he learned the Forest Service spent $30 million on logging roads that yielded $2 million worth of timber. The Forest Service’s new emphasis is on restoration of habitat and maintaining existing roads, he said.
“This is a bad bill and a bad deal,” said Waldo. “It harms places cherished by the American people for salmon, bears, and other wildlife, it threatens job-creating industries like fishing and tourism, and taxpayers have to foot the bill for it.”
Sealaska Corp., which has substantial timber interests, supports the legislation.
“Sealaska supports putting the 2001 Roadless Rule in Alaska’s National Forest back before the public for discussion and debate, a process step unavailable to Alaska public prior to its original passage,” said Rick Harris, Sealaska executive vice president. “Sealaska remains concerned about the economic and energy crisis hitting rural communities and how the Roadless Rule could compound the crisis especially within our rural villages. Sealaska is also concerned how the Roadless Rule may have negative consequences on accessing rural communities in the region, such as ports, roads to access rural communities and community improvements.”
“Our congressional delegation recognizes the impacts of the Roadless Rule and we support their efforts to find solutions for the region and the state,” Harris said.
There are already many protections for forests. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 “protected over 100 million acres of federal lands in Alaska, doubling the size of the country’s national park and refuge system and tripling the amount of land designated as wilderness. ANILCA expanded the national park system in Alaska by over 43 million acres, creating 10 new national parks and increasing the acreage of three existing units,” according to information from the National Parks Conservation Association. That association doesn’t track activities in national forests, said spokeswoman Lindsay Bartsch.
The Wilderness Society does track those issues, but spokespeople in the Anchorage office had no comment at press time on the delegation’s proposal, having focused the society’s efforts on responding to the Sealaska Lands Bill (H.R. 1408) and the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska Access Act (H.R. 2150), aimed at aiding oil development in the arctic.
Murkowski cited the high level of existing protections as a reason the rule should be lifted in Alaska.
“The Roadless Rule never made sense for Alaska since 96 percent of the Tongass and 99 percent of the Chugach (national forests) are already protected by ANILCA and forest management plans,” Murkowski said. “Exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule will help make certain that what little remains of the timber industry in Southeast can survive long enough for the Forest Service to implement its second-growth harvest policy. The exemption will also ensure that hydropower and other affordable energy projects in Southeast can move forward.”
As implemented, the rule prohibits new roads in inventoried roadless areas and prohibits most timber harvest in these areas. The March court decision reinstating the rule effectively places 300,000 acres of inventoried roadless area in which logging would have been allowed under the Tongass Land Management Plan off limits to development, the delegation said.
Alaska’s two national forests are the nation’s largest. The Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, at 17 million acres, covers an area the size of West Virginia. The Chugach National Forest, stretching from the eastern Kenai Peninsula to most of Prince William Sound is 5.4 million acres.
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