For Tongass projects, critics say environmental rollback could cut the public out of the process

A clear-cut in the Tongass National Forest on Kupreanof Island in 2014. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy recently praised President Donald Trump’s decision to make changes to bedrock environmental policy. Proponents say the changes streamline a burdensome regulatory process that hampers development on federal lands. In the Tongass National Forest, they come at a time when sweeping management changes were already underway. 

Natalie Dawson, the executive director at Audubon Alaska, compares the changes to the National Environmental Policy Act to a late-night text.

“It used to be like the morning text message where it was thoughtful and you had a night to sleep on it. And you thought about your actions and what you may or may not want to say. And now, we can kind of go with heat of the moment decision making.”

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Changes include removing the requirement to analyze cumulative impacts, like climate change, for new projects to take place on federal lands.

Dawson thinks another impact of the late-night text version of NEPA will be less public engagement. She says public input was a founding principle of the NEPA framework. Now, that’s being degraded.

This is all happening when the Tongass — the nation’s largest national forest — was already going through some controversial management changes. It’s slated to be totally exempted from the federal Roadless Rule, which could open up more access to logging. Under old NEPA, that public process was already fraught, with critics claiming the U.S. Forest Service didn’t listen to the public or tribal governments’ feedback to keep those protections in place. 

Under new NEPA, Dawson says getting a word in on future projects will be a lot harder. One change is that only substantive comments will be accepted. This means that expressing general concerns about logging near deer or salmon habitat isn’t going to cut it. 

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“There was this phrase called, ‘to the fullest extent possible encourage and facilitate public involvement,’” Dawson said. “So ‘to the fullest extent possible.’ That language is now gone.”

“You may not have the time to sit down with all the maps and documents and provide a site-specific analysis of the federal agency action, and yet you are an incredibly important stakeholder in this process,” she said.

In the last few years, public meetings held throughout Southeast Alaska to discuss changes to the Roadless Rule were well attended. Dawson says that in the future, it’s not clear if public meetings with federal agencies will even take place. Before, meetings were held when there was substantial interest or controversy. Now, public meetings will only occur “when appropriate.” She says it’s also unclear who among the various federal agencies will make that determination. The same goes for decisions about whether a project is significant enough to trigger a full environmental review. 

Dawson thinks the region recently saw a preview of what these changes could mean. The largest proposed timber sale in the Tongass in decades wasn’t allowed to move forward because it violated NEPA. Dawson says that project might not have the same barriers in another go-round. 

Tessa Axelson, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, says the ruling on that sale was a setback for the timber industry, and she thinks streamlining NEPA will be a good thing.

“I don’t see anything necessarily that is going to result in the loss of public input into the process,” Axelson said.

The timber industry group has long pushed for changes to NEPA. Axelson says under the old version, projects could be held up for many years — making it difficult for struggling operators to bid on federal timber sales and plan for a predictable supply.

“What we want is a process that is responsive to the law and also ensures that the professionals, that agencies are held to a standard for producing things timely and in such a way that is not so burdensome to small business operators,” Axelson said.

Still, Axelson doesn’t think an exemption to the Roadless Rule in the Tongass and revisions to NEPA will do enough to ensure a better outlook for Alaska’s timber industry. It’ll be up to federal agencies to plan enough timber sales that actually come together. 

In the meantime, all of this could change in November. President Trump’s NEPA revisions can be undone by a new presidential administration.