In lawsuit, groups ask for ‘Roadless Rule’ protection restored to the Tongass

A path leads through a dense forest.
The Tongass National Forest is the largest temperate rainforest in the country. With exceptions, the Clinton-era Roadless Rule restricted road building and industrial activity in around 55% of the national forest. Advocates for its repeal said it posed unnecessary hurdles to development projects, like logging, mining and renewable energy (Erin McKinstry/KCAW)

A coalition including environmental groups, tribes and fishermen filed a lawsuit on Wednesday to restore Roadless Rule protections to 9 million acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

Alaska’s governor and Congressional delegation applauded the Trump administration’s decision earlier this year to exempt the Tongass from the Clinton-era Roadless Rule, which restricts development on federal forestlands. They said the rollback will boost Southeast Alaska’s ability to log trees, extract minerals and boost hydroelectric energy production on federal forestland.

But the coalition behind the new lawsuit argues the decision disregarded overwhelming opposition from Alaskans for the sake of a few hundred timber jobs.

Kate Glover is a Juneau environmental attorney with Earthjustice, one of the law firms representing the groups. She said the U.S. Forest Service’s environmental review is fatally flawed. The rollback of the Roadless Rule was, in part, justified to help the region’s logging industry, she said.

“But their analysis shows that removing the Roadless Rule will not provide any additional jobs or income through the timber industry over the next 100 years,” she said.

“And because they’ve made that assumption that there isn’t going to be any more logging, despite opening up all these acres to clear cutting, they’ve failed to disclose the effects of the action through their environmental impact statement.”

The five Southeast Alaska tribes that have joined the lawsuit all withdrew from consultations with the federal government in September, saying their input was being ignored.

Tribal president Joel Jackson of the Organized Village of Kake said the Tongass is his people’s traditional homeland. The rainforest is tied to food security through subsistence hunting and fishing, he said.

“We’ve lived here for 10,000 years or more,” he said. “And we’ve practiced our way of life, in these ports on these waters, all around our communities, and, you know, if we lose that, we’re going to lose part of our identity.”

The lawsuit includes support from the visitor industry and commercial fishermen.

Linda Behnken of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka said Southeast Alaska’s commercial fishing sector depends on healthy forest habitat — a point reinforced in last year’s report by the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust.

“There’s a lot of information there that really we drew on in saying, ‘Boy, the best value for the coastal communities in the Southeast economy is to keep this forest intact — particularly in the face of climate change,’” Behnken said.

For critics of the Roadless Rule, a court challenge was inevitable.

Jim Clark is a Juneau attorney and longtime political operative. He’s been working to overturn the Roadless Rule in Alaska since at least Gov. Frank Murkowski’s administration.

“I don’t think there’s really any reason for people to be frightened by the exemption —we’ve had (it) in the past and these problems haven’t occurred and that there’s no reason that will occur now,” he said.

That’s because, he said, a 2016 Tongass management plan and federal environmental laws remain in place to conserve the region’s natural resources. That includes a projected 185,000 acres of old growth forest that, with the Roadless Rule lifted, could now be logged, he said.

The federal lawsuit is filed against U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue “or his successor,” in recognition of the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Glover, with Earthjustice, said a Biden administration could start the formal process of reinstating the Roadless Rule.

“We think they’ll recognize the importance of the timeliness for climate change for the whole world,” she said, “As well as the wrongs that happened to Tribes throughout this process and the importance of keeping the forest intact.”

But, in the meantime, the lawsuit asks the courts to reinstate Roadless Rule restrictions across Southeast Alaska.

Tongass National Forest spokesman Paul Robbins Jr. said Wednesday that, as a policy, his agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.