Court: Reinstate Tongass Roadless Rule Exemption

A federal appeals court issued an opinion today saying the roadless rule should not apply to Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

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The Tongass National Forest could resume allowing logging in roadless areas under a court ruling. But it won’t happen immediately — or at all. (U.S. Forest Service Image)
The Tongass National Forest could resume allowing logging in roadless areas under a court ruling. But it won’t happen immediately — or at all. (U.S. Forest Service Image)

The rule was enacted nationwide more than a decade ago. It prohibits logging and other industrial activity in national forest lands without roads.

The Tongass forest, the nation’s largest, was later granted an exemption. That was struck down three years ago in U.S. District Court and the rule was re-imposed.

The Forest Service did not appeal that decision, but the state of Alaska did. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granted its request. (Read the decision.)

Tom Lenhart is the state attorney involved in the case.

“Removal of the roadless rule won’t in and of itself increase timber harvests or mining or anything like that. But it will take down the barriers that are preventing some things from happening,” he says.

The 9th Circuit Court’s decision does not immediately lift the rule. It sent the case back to the lower court to decide whether additional environmental review is needed.

Buck Lindekugel is attorney for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. It’s one of a dozen groups that sued to bring back the roadless rule.

“The reality is the decision does not immediately reinstate the Tongass exemption. And the Forest Service’s actions have shown it has no desire to go back to the damage, expense and controversy associated with roadless area logging on the Tongass,” he says.

Forest Service officials referred calls about the ruling to the Department of Justice. The staffer handling the issue could not be reached for comment by this report’s deadline.

Plaintiff’s attorney Tom Waldo of Earthjustice says the decision won’t change much. That’s because the Forest Service is already moving away from the type of timber sales the roadless exemption allows.

“I think that’s where the future direction of the policy debate is going to lie, rather than trying to turn the clock back in time to fight the battle of the 1990s over whether we should be logging in roadless areas of old growth on the Tongass,” he says.

The state has a different view.

“We’re hoping the Forest Service will meet its obligations to seek to meet timber demand. And we feel that some sale from roadless areas is necessary to do that. I’m sure the state will continue to use every means available to encourage the Forest Service to take actions that will further a certain level of development,” says attorney Tom Lenhart.

The state, the timber industry and other development groups have been pressuring the Forest Service to allow more logging.

That includes a proposal for the federal government to turn over or sell some Tongass lands.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.