Ketchikan Daily News: Op-Ed: The Tongass and the Roadless Rule

A few weeks ago, I spoke before the State Legislature and highlighted the congressional delegation’s efforts to restore reasonable access to federal areas across Alaska. This is a longstanding fight, but increasingly critical for responsible resource development and the long-term prosperity of our state.  

Fortunately, after years of frustration, we are making real progress with the Trump administration. New development is taking place in our National Petroleum Reserve, the leasing program for the Coastal Plain is on track, and we should soon have renewed opportunities in the offshore Arctic and Cook Inlet.

The Department of the Interior is moving to revoke decades-old Public Land Orders, paving the way for long overdue land conveyances. Mines like Donlin, Graphite One, and the Palmer Project are moving forward. We are also teaming up with an array of federal agencies to bring cheaper, cleaner energy to many of our remote communities.

All of these efforts are a reminder of the importance of having strong federal partners who are willing to listen and work with us. But nowhere is that more true than here in Southeast, where the oversized presence of the federal government is formidable.

The Tongass National Forest accounts for 80 percent of the Southeast land base. If there is one common refrain I hear from those who live in the region’s 32 islanded communities, it is the need for greater access to the forest. Last year I held a roundtable in Ketchikan, and nearly every participant made that case.

At the root of access restrictions in the Tongass is the sweeping federal Roadless Rule, which the Clinton administration imposed on its way out the door in 2001. In reality, this one-size-fits-all rule should never have been applied to Alaska. The Tongass now has more than 9.7 million acres of inventoried roadless areas. Combined with wilderness designations, the federal government has placed some 93 percent of the forest off-limits to development.

The Roadless Rule imposes sweeping prohibitions on road construction and reconstruction that have impacted access for timber, mining, recreation, transportation, renewable energy projects, transmission, and more. It has been enforced at the expense of local jobs, incomes, and energy prices. The rule and its current application to the Tongass are simply unworkable, a fact that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue witnessed firsthand when he visited Southeast last summer.

Secretary Perdue’s visit occurred near the start of a public process to create an Alaska-specific roadless rule for the Tongass that began with a petition from the State of Alaska for a full exemption. This new rule – being written by the U.S. Forest Service – represents our best chance for real improvements in local access that will benefit everyone.  

So far, the Forest Service has completed its extensive scoping process. A Citizen’s Advisory Committee formed by the State of Alaska, which is a cooperating agency for the rule, has produced a report with options for the Forest Service to consider. The agency is now working on its draft environmental impact statement, which should be released early this summer. 

My hope is that if the Forest Service selects a preferred alternative within that document, it will be a full exemption from the Roadless Rule. A full exemption has always been my preference, the preference of the congressional delegation, and the preference of Alaska governors from both parties. Now that the Forest Service has reviewed the Roadless Rule, the agency should reach the same conclusion that so many of us have: it simply does not fit and does not work for the Tongass.

There is a terrible misconception that exempting Alaska from the Roadless Rule will result in rampant destruction of the Tongass, but nothing could be farther from the truth. It is entirely possible to bring conservation back into balance with other uses. The Tongass Land Management Plan would continue to guide development on the forest. And more than 5.7 million acres would remain completely off-limits due to federal wilderness designations.

This is our best opportunity to reduce the excessive limitations imposed by the Roadless Rule and finally restore access to the Tongass. The state-specific rulemaking will help sustain the regional economy, cultures, and ways of life. We should thank Secretary Perdue for agreeing to undertake it. And we should work with him, the Forest Service, and the Dunleavy administration to secure the right outcome for Southeast Alaska.

By:  Chairman Lisa Murkowski
Source: Ketchikan Daily News