State leads new efforts to restore Roadless Rule exemption

There have been numerous attempts recently to sidestep U.S. Forest Service management of the Tongass National Forest. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has a few plans in the works.

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And now the State of Alaska is petitioning for more attention to be given to a very old debate. The Roadless Rule was created to protect wilder areas on federal lands.

But critics say it limits access to timber and mining in Southeast — putting jobs at risk.

If you listened to Gov. Bill Walker’s State of the State speech last week, you might have caught it.

Peppered among tidbits about a natural gas pipeline and budget concerns, there was this:

“Today, my administration filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to undertake a rule making process to restore the Roadless Rule exemption to the region,” Walker said.

Which could give Alaska a pass to build new roads in the Tongass. And that’s only the latest effort to increase access to logging.

Even by a state forester’s standards, there’s been a lot to follow.

“It’s very complicated,” Chris Maisch, a director at the Alaska Division of Forestry, said. “You could do a half hour interview just on the history of this.”

Maisch says the state is asking the the U.S. Department of Agriculture to open up the issue for more public discussion on the Roadless Rule. If approved, Maisch estimates it’s a process that could two years or longer.

And while this tactic might be different than what it’s tried before, he says the ask isn’t anything new.

Maisch says there’s a legal and economic argument to be made: Alaska should be exempt from the Roadless Rule.

“Well, the state has always had the position and has never wavered from that,” Maisch said.

But Austin Williams, a director of law and policy at Trout Unlimited, thinks the state’s petition could “turn back the clock.”

“And really undo a lot of the good work that has been done over the last several years,” Williams said.

Sticking with the current forest service plan for the Tongass, Williams said, makes the most sense. It was created with years of community input, and finalized in 2016 — outlining a transition away from cutting old growth trees.

The U.S. Forest Service has focused its efforts to areas not subject to Roadless Rule, such as the Big Thorne Timber Sale on Prince of Wales Island. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Williams said the economy in the region has shifted to industries like tourism and fishing. He asserts that rehashing the Roadless Rule debate isn’t a step moving forward.

But Williams says more public discussion is better than some of Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s latest efforts on the Tongass.

“That is much preferable, I think, to a budget appropriations rider that doesn’t have that same type of public involvement,” Williams said.

Last November, Sen. Murkowski attached a rider to the Senate Interior Appropriations bill that could exempt Alaska from the Roadless Rule.

Congress has until Feb. 8 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, the State Division of Forestry is keeping its fingers crossed that one of those efforts sticks.