New legislation introduced in Congress aims to strengthen Roadless Rule

Tongass National Forest (Creative Commons photo by Henry Hartley)

A few states are in the process of challenging a federal rule that makes it difficult to build new roads through national lands, called the Roadless Rule.

In Alaska, the debate centers on the Tongass National Forest, where Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski says more access is needed to timber, energy and mining opportunities.

But on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., introduced legislation which could eliminate the possibility of an Alaska-specific exemption to the Roadless Rule.

Under the Roadless Area Conservation Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wouldn’t have the authority to grant that exemption.

Right now, the agency is on track to release a draft environmental impact statement this summer, including various options for road-building in the Tongass. An official decision is expected by 2020.

It’s unclear how the new legislation will interfere with those plans. It still has to pass both the House and the Senate, where Murkowski chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.