On Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service said it was taking steps with the state to allow new roads to be built in the Tongass National Forest. It’s been a decades-long battle, and people have expressed mixed feelings about the announcement.
Mike Douville has lived on Prince of Wales Island his entire life. But he says the island doesn’t look the same. Now, there are large clear cuts where old growth trees used to be. He’d like to see an end to industrial logging — at least, in his lifetime.
So hearing that new roads could be built in the Tongass, which would increase access to timber, was a huge disappointment.
“You got to look at the impacts on wildlife as well as people who live here,” Douville said. “I’ve said this before, I’ve lived here since 1949. All of the trees were standing here when I was kid. Now we don’t have that much left.”
But logging isn’t the only reason the forest service and the state want the ability to build roads in the national forest. There are communities in the Tongass that don’t have clear cell phone reception.
Greg Mickelson, with Alaska Power & Telephone, doesn’t provide cell service, but the company could potentially provide the electricity if there were new roads.
“Personally, I think because I’m in the power business, the Roadless Rule [exemption] will be beneficial to us to be able to access future hydroelectric sights,” Mickelson said.
The forest service has already allowed some exceptions for hydro projects like this in the past.
But Mickelson says the ability to construct new roads in the Tongass is also important for local economies — dependent on timber and mining.
The last large mill on Prince of Wales Island, for instance, is the utility’s biggest year-round customer.
“We’re all in this together,” Mickleson said. “I’m not a anti-environmentalist, but I also know that people have to be able to have a job if they want to be able to live.”
Dan Blanchard, the CEO and owner of UnCruise Adventures, says people don’t come to Alaska to see clearcuts. He says tourists want to experience the “pristine wilderness” of the Tongass — roadbuilding unchecked could hurt commercial interests.
But Blanchard is not opposed to new roads being built entirely, and the state has said it will include tour operators in the conversation.
“So, with that I feel a lot more comfortable,” Blanchard said. “Or maybe comfort isn’t the word? Maybe I don’t feel as anxious.”
Blanchard says he’s open to hearing more dialogue. A state-appointed committee will discuss road building in the Tongass for the next two years.