The non-profit conservation group The Wilderness Society states the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a federal mandate protecting certain wildlife areas in the country, is proving to be a success a decade after being adopted by the U.S. Forest Service. Senior Resource Analyst Mike Anderson said only 75 roads have been constructed in roadless areas since 2001, with a large portion of them in the Tongass National Forest, which is exempt from the rule.
Anderson said documentation from the Forest Service states 33 miles of roads were constructed between 2001 and 2009 for the timber industry.
“It shows that during the past decade the Tongass National Forest was uniquely intent upon logging in robust areas,” Anderson said.
He said this is the only part of the country where the Forest Service has been particularly intent on building logging roads in robust areas. He said this would normally be in violation of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in other areas but is legal here, as the rule has an exemption for Tongass that allowed for timber sales already approved or being planned to be completed.
The roads built in the Tongass National Forest are in full compliance with the law. There are conflicting court orders concerning the rule but the exemption has been upheld by the U.S Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, said Robin Dale, the roadless area coordinator for the Forest Service’s Alaska Region. She is also the group leader for appeals, litigation and the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Dale and other Tongass personnel said there is continuing litigation regarding the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, making it difficult to speak on specifics. This includes arguments as to why the Tongass was officially exempted in the first place in 2003. A 2006 court order was issued to reinstate the original rule with the exemption.
Anderson said the exemption was originally supposed to be temporary, but it has been in place too long to be considered so.
Further legal scuffles over the rule have made it difficult to manage roadless areas all over the country.
Dale said another complication is the Tongass is not exempt from decisions made by the Secretary of Agriculture, who could make his own decisions regarding road construction.
“It doesn’t change any of the processes. It just reserves authority at the decision-making level,” she said.
Last year, approval authority was re-delegated to the Alaska Region for certain activities and projects within inventoried roadless areas in the Chugach and Tongass National Forest.
Another Forest Service re-delegation specific to Alaska approves free use to settlers, miners, residents and prospectors if such use occurs in inventoried roadless areas when needs cannot be met in the roaded land base.
The Forest Service announced a shift in focus to second growth management and development of other projects away from logging, a decision that sits well with The Wilderness Society, among other conservation groups.
“The Forest Service is voluntarily moving toward management in robust areas and not seeing new timber sales at this time. So we’re pleased with the Forest Service’s efforts to do a better job of protecting robust areas in the Tongass,” Anderson said.
The roadless rule is even seen as an important tool by the loggers, although it could seriously cut into the available harvests if not for the exemption. Executive Director Owen Graham of Alaska Forest Association, which does logging and management plans, said logging only takes place in a small percent of the forest as it is.
“We need the roadless rule, but even with the exemption we only manage timber sales on 4 percent of the Tongass,” Graham said.
He presented a document from the Forest Service that indicates almost 92 percent of the Tongass is roadless. Graham said the Forest Service only allows timber harvest on about 670,000 acres out of 17 million, adding, “And half of that is roadless, so if we’re not exempt then that takes away half of our timber supply.”
• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or email@example.com.