At USFS hearing, Sitkans make a unanimous case for a roadless Tongass

Frederick Olsen Jr. was one of 41 Sitkans to testify at the subsistence hearing on Tuesday, Nov. 12. (Photo by Ari Snider/KCAW)

Sitka residents recently got their chance to hear directly from the U.S. Forest Service about the agency’s proposal to exempt Alaska from the federal Roadless Rule. At a Nov. 12 public meeting on the Rule and a subsistence hearing that followed, Sitkans expressed strong support for keeping existing protections in place. But some are starting to lose faith in the public comment process. 

The US Forest Service has been taking its show on the road recently, hosting public meetings throughout Southeast on its proposal to exempt Alaska from the Roadless Rule.

Most public meetings throughout the region have demonstrated opposition to the exemption. That trend continued in Sitka, where around 100 residents attended two back-to-back hearings at Harrigan Centennial Hall on Nov. 12. 

Although several Southeast Native organizations have formally opposed the proposed Roadless exemption, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska has not. Nevertheless, tribal elder Harvey Kitka cited a common concern that increased old-growth logging would degrade habitats, cutting off food sources for residents.

“The buffers on the streams are not enough. We gotta have some old-growth forest for the deer to survive and all the other animals,” Kitka said. “We don’t wanna see a complete clear cut anymore. Cause that’s too hard on our food that we collect through the winter.”

The 2001 Rule applies to 30% of National Forest land nationwide, and 55% of the Tongass.

It’s designed to limit development and resource extraction in designated areas. Despite its name, the rule actually does allow some road building on a case-by-case basis.

In 2018, Alaska petitioned the Forest Service to come up with a state-specific Roadless Rule. Two other states — Idaho and Colorado — also have their own unique rules.

After the agency came up with six options, President Trump directed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to pursue Alternative 6 — fully exempting the Tongass from Roadless protections. According to the Washington Post, that directive came after Trump privately discussed the matter with Gov. Mike Dunleavy in June, while the president’s jet was refueling in Anchorage. 

Allycia Witherspoon spoke about the importance of subsistence harvesting to her family during a hearing in Sitka on Tuesday, Nov. 12. (Photo by Ari Snider/KCAW)

At both Sitka hearings, there was broad support for Alternative 1 instead — the so-called “No Action” alternative, which would make no changes to the existing rule.

Tava Guillory, a junior at Sitka High School, was one of 41 Sitkans who testified. She echoed many of the public comments when she said she feared more roads would lead to more logging, harming salmon streams, reducing deer habitat and generally making a subsistence lifestyle more difficult.  

“My family and I appreciate the fish we catch, the deer we hunt, and the berries we pick,” Guillory said. “We are benefited so much, every year, by this beautiful land we live in, the wonderful Tongass forest. Which would be harmed by any of the alternatives two through six.” 

Management plans for the Tongass have come before the public many times over the years. For some at the Sitka meeting, including Eric Jordan, testifying in favor of keeping Roadless protections is a case of deja vu all over again. And he’s starting to lose patience. 

“What I predict, based on years of testimony at meetings like this, is that our wonderful comments are going to be ignored,” Jordan said. “And this administration, with the aid of the Dunleavy administration, are gonna go ahead and exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, and we should be outraged!” 

Linda Behnken, who spoke in her role as Executive Director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said she’d been through many public comment processes. And she doesn’t expect this one to be the last. 

“We’ve been frustrated that we’re revisiting this again. We’ve been through this over and over in the time that I’ve lived here,” Behnken said. “We’ll count on the young people to continue to fight this fight. But clearly there’s only one solution for the Tongass, and that’s Alternative 1, the ‘No Action’ alternative.” 

But even those who expressed doubt in the process stressed the importance of speaking out. Will Peterson, who works in environmental science, said he believes the federal government is already set on choosing Alternative 6, regardless of public comment. 

“I think it’s already predetermined on what they want to do, and that is just a huge uphill battle,” Peterson said.

Even so, Peterson says he still has faith that speaking up is important. Enough faith, at least, to sit through a multi-hour weeknight meeting for a chance to state his support of the “No Action” alternative for the record. 

The public comment period for the proposed Alaska-specific Roadless Rule exemption runs through Dec. 17. 

The public has until midnight Alaska time on Dec. 17, 2019, to submit comments on the documents. The documents are posted in the Federal Register and on the agency’s Alaska Roadless Rule website.

These are the ways the public can submit written comments once the notice is published: