Forest Service kicks off Roadless Rule discussion in Juneau

Conor Lendrum, of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, listens to a presentation on the Roadless Rule on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The U.S. Forest Service kicked off a series of public meetings Monday, Nov. 4, in Juneau to discuss why it is seeking a full exemption to the Roadless Rule in the Tongass National Forest.

The federal agency explained it didn’t anticipate big changes in the Tongass as a result of the exemption. But some in the crowd weren’t convinced. 

People who attended the meeting had a lot of questions for the Forest Service: especially, questions about why verbal comments weren’t being documented at the meeting and questions about why a previous comment period, where most of the public told the agency they wanted to keep Roadless Rule in place, was ignored. 

Chris French, who works at the Forest Service’s D.C. office, told the audience of a few hundred people their feedback was still influencing the final decision. 

“I hear you,” French said. “And that is certainly something, as we look at those comments that have come in, and we think we need to shift, we certainly can.”

The Clinton-era Roadless Rule makes it difficult to build new roads through national lands. But state officials and Alaska’s congressional delegation have long maintained there’s not enough access to valuable stands of timber or energy and mining opportunities in the region. 

In October, the Forest Service announced it was moving ahead with the full exemption. Tribal governmentstourism operators and environmental groups have expressed concern about the impact this change could have on deer and salmon habitat. 

That’s why gillnetter Sommers Cole wanted to be here. He fishes in “waters that are fed by terrestrial habitat,” and he’s concerned that “terrestrial habitat” could be damaged by logging and affect salmon streams. The Forest Service explained to Cole that a full Roadless Rule exemption in the Tongass would have virtually no impact on fisheries. 

But Cole’s not sure. 

“I’ll never claim to speak for other fisherman,” he said. “But I do know it’s on a lot of people’s radar.”

The Forest Service was supposed to be considering a suite of options for the Tongass that allowed road building to varying degrees. 

But over the summer, the Washington Post reported Gov. Dunleavy had the ear of the President. And at Dunleavy’s urging, President Trump directed the Forest Service to choose the full exemption. 

Murray Walsh is OK with that. He doesn’t like the Roadless Rule because he thinks it impedes business. And he thinks exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule is a step in the right direction. 

“You have a governor of a state who wants a full exemption and has asked for it and will keep asking for it,” he said.

Richard Peterson is the president of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, a tribal government that’s a cooperating agency with the state on the Roadless Rule decision.  He also thinks Alaskans should have a say in how the Tongass in managed. But he doesn’t think that’s what’s currently playing out. 

“I’m really frustrated,” he said. “The process has been abbreviated.”

Recently, six tribal governments in the region sent a unifying letter to the Forest Service opposing a full rollback of the Roadless Rule. 

“People here who have been born here have 10,000 years of descendancy from this forest,” he said. “We matter just as much as the timber and anything else. And so we should be the ones in Alaska that decide what happens in Alaska.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, the Forest Service will hold another public meeting in Ketchikan. Here’s a roundup of all the meetings happening across Southeast Alaska. Public comments will be accepted until Dec. 17.