Forest Service forging ahead with full Roadless Rule exemption for Tongass

A mountain peak rises above a spruce forest
A mountain peak rises above the Tongass National Forest northeast of Sitka Aug. 3, 2016. (Ed Schoenfeld/ CoastAlaska)

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it is forging ahead with a proposal to make the Tongass National Forest fully exempt from a Clinton-era rule designed to limit road development on federal lands.

It’s known as the Roadless Rule, and successive Alaska governors and the state’s congressional delegation have pushed to make it not apply in the Tongass.

Proponents say exempting the Tongass would allow for more mining, communications and renewable energy projects on federal land. It could also open up more areas for logging, though advocates and opponents seem to agree that the impact on the timber industry would likely be minimal.

But many Alaska Natives worry that rolling back the rule would damage areas tribal members use for hunting, fishing and foraging. Nearly 200 people testified at 18 hearings last year specifically geared towards people who rely on the forest for their way of life — and large majorities supported keeping the rule in place, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Nine federally-recognized tribal governments asked the USDA to restart the rulemaking process in July, saying federal officials have brushed aside Alaska Natives’ concerns.

An internal Forest Service report notes that 96% of public comments received on the issue last fall supported leaving the rule in place. Approximately 1% supported a full exemption. The final environmental impact statement is expected to be released Friday. That would start a 30-day waiting period before the USDA can issue a final decision on the Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest.

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