With a Roadless Rule decision pending, tribal governments petition for new process

The Tongass National Forest near Wrangell, Alaska, in 2016. (Creative Commons photo by Rob Bertholf)

Nine tribal governments in Southeast Alaska submitted a petition to the United States Department of Agriculture on Tuesday, asking for another rule making process for the Tongass National Forest. 

The federal agency is close to announcing what’s likely to be a full exemption of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass, which the state has long requested. 

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But there’s been discord between the Department of Agriculture and tribal governments, who’ve repeatedly stated Roadless Rule protections should stay in place. In an unreleased federal report, 96% of the public said they disagreed with changes to the Roadless Rule, too. An exemption would make it easier for new roads to be built in the forest — opening up access to logging. 

Joel Jackson, the President of the Organized Village of Kake, was one of the leaders who signed the petition. He’s concerned about damage to fishing and hunting areas, and he said Kake’s concerns have felt ignored by the federal agency. 

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“They seem to minimize our way of life,” Jackson said.

The petition outlines the creation of a Traditional Homelands Conservation Rule to protect important areas for Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples. 

In 2018, the State of Alaska petitioned the U.S. government for the Roadless Rule exemption in the Tongass. Tribal governments were supposed to be playing an integral role in that process, but have been critical of how the federal agency has handled things — saying that deadlines were rushed and that a meeting was scheduled during the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, making it difficult to attend. 

The petition asks the Department of Agriculture to create a new, more robust consultation process. Marina Anderson, the Tribal Vice President of Kasaan, says that would bring in more science to help guide the process. 

“That best available science includes Traditional Ecological Knowledge,” Anderson said.

It’s unclear how long the Department of Agriculture has to respond to the tribal governments’ petition. The agency accepted former Gov. Bill Walker’s petition to reexamine the Roadless Rule after four months