Public comment period opens as Biden moves to restore Roadless Rule protections to Tongass

A trail through grass that overlooks the water.
Parts of the Tongass National Forest seen from Ketchikan’s Rainbird Trail. (KRBD file photo)

The Biden administration on Tuesday formally began the process of restoring Roadless Rule protections to millions of acres of Southeast Alaska’s federal forestlands.

It opened a 60-day comment period to undo action taken by the Trump administration that critics say could lead to more old growth logging in Tongass National Forest.

notice in the federal register published Tuesday says that Southeast’s timber industry is shrinking.

Tongass National Forest-related logging and sawmilling fell from just shy of 200 jobs in the early 2000s to around 60 workers in 2018.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture argues that restoring the 2001 Roadless Rule reflects the Biden administration’s priorities to build on the region’s tourism and fishing sectors.

The U.S. Forest Service has already frozen old growth timber sales under the current administration.

“…. a policy change for the Tongass can be made without significant adverse impacts to the timber and mining industries, while providing benefits to the recreation, tourism and fishing industries,” the notice reads.

Trout Unlimited’s Austin Williams in Anchorage says Alaska Gov. Bill Walker’s 2018 petition to exempt the Tongass National Forest from Roadless Rule protections put too much emphasis on commercial logging.

“It’s really time that we just move past that,” Williams said Tuesday. “And we recognize that there’s more value on the forest, keeping it and conserving it so that we can have, you know, fish and wildlife so that we can have tourism so that we can have cultural and traditional uses and to help fight climate change.”

The Roadless Rule would apply to about 9 million acres of the Tongass. But in practical terms, it could protect at most about 168,000 acres of old growth forest from clear cut.

Alaska elected leaders decry ‘federal overreach’

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Alaska’s congressional delegation strongly supported the Trump administration’s exemption of Roadless Rule and has called the Biden administration’s move “federal overreach.”

“We think that discretion for the forest to be managed should continue to be at the local level,” the governor’s chief of staff Randy Ruaro, who grew up in Ketchikan when it was a lumber town, told CoastAlaska. “We don’t need Washington, D.C. with a one-size-fits-all rule for every forest in the nation.”

A lawsuit by the state to block the Biden administration’s initiative to bring back Roadless on the Tongass was dismissed last week by a federal appeals court.

separate lawsuit by a coalition of tribes and ecological groups in favor of roadless protections remains pending but could be rendered moot by the new change in direction.

Tuesday’s action opens up a two-month comment period required before the agency can move forward.

If the Roadless Rule is applied to the Tongass, it could be reversed again by a future administration. More permanent protections would take an act of Congress.

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Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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