The final deadline for public comments on a proposal to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule was Tuesday, Dec. 17.
As the deadline loomed, environmental groups increasingly tried to get the word out to encourage people to weigh-in.
Those conversations have taken place in physical spaces and also — increasingly — online.
Mary Catharine Martin works for Salmon State, an environmental advocacy group that works to protect waterways for salmon.
She pulls up Salmon State’s Instagram feed to show some of their recent efforts. She says the videos the group created with its partners about the Tongass has had a big reach.
In a video called “Breathe,” a Tlingit woman and a Yup’ik woman dressed in regalia talk about the cultural and environmental significance of the nation’s largest national forest. Salmon and eagles make an appearance.
Then the pacing of the video speeds up as chainsaws and falling trees blink on the screen.
Martin estimates the video has been viewed on Instagram by more than 32,000 people, and her group is still adding up the numbers.
She says the goal isn’t just to get people to watch and share the content.
“The main purpose of all of this, besides informing people about what’s going on and the different ways the Tongass is valuable as an intact Forest, is get people to comment,” Martin said.
In February, the U.S. Forest Service documented over 140,000 comments on a draft version of changes to the Roadless Rule in the Tongass.
Most of the comments suggested keeping the rule in place. But in November, Dept. of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that — despite all those comments — the agency would recommend the Tongass be completely exempted from the Roadless Rule.
During this final comment period that started in October, 220,000 people had weighed in, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Over the weekend, Audubon Alaska helped host a webinar to guide people through the process of crafting their comments. The instructors for the video appear to be in their homes. They include activists and a tribal government leader.
One hundred and fifty people watched on Facebook live. Another 150 people have streamed it again since then.
Natalie Dawson, Audubon Alaska’s Executive Director, says environmental groups have been making a special effort this go-round to bolster the numbers.
“I mean there’s definitely been a bigger social media push for this … then there has for other issues on the Tongass,” Dawson said. “100 percent hands down.”
Dawson says people have asked her if official public comments really matter. After all, the last comment period didn’t sway a top federal official from seeking a full rollback of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass.
But Dawson thinks it does carry weight.
“If the agency chooses to ignore the public and the public has made substantive comments then that’s grounds to pursue litigation and lawsuits,” Dawson said.
At a church in Juneau, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council took a different approach.
In addition to the group’s social media outreach, Executive Director Meredith Trainor says they wanted to invite people to draft comments, on the eve of the deadline, over bowls of salmon chowder.
“It’s also important to feel together to feel a part of something bigger and see each other and make eye contact,” Trainor said.
The U.S. Forest Service is expected to make its final decision on how the Roadless Rule applies to the Tongass in 2020.