‘Another broken promise’: Tribes say feds ignored their input on Roadless Rule exemption for Tongass

Tall sitka spruce trees seen from withing the foreset
Tongass National Forest (Creative Commons photo by Henry Hartley)

Changing a federal rule isn’t simple, but the Trump administration is on the verge of doing it. Last month it started a 30-day clock to completely exempt Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule.

The rule restricts — but does not prohibit — road building and resource development on some national forestlands. Critics say it locks up natural resources. To change it, the federal government is required to consult with tribal governments. And it did — nine Southeast Alaska tribes in all, whose traditional homelands are now part of the country’s largest national forest.

Bob Starbard is the administrator of Hoonah Indian Association. When the federal government started its consultation, the tribe was the first to sign on as a cooperating agency. And he said at first it seemed like U.S. Forest Service officials were listening.

“The Tongass, which we sit in the middle of, is part and parcel of being Tlingit. We are people of the land,” Starbard said. “It became clear at the very end, however, that the game had already been fixed.”

By that he means the meetings, hearings and public comment periods — which were dominated by Alaskans who favor of keeping the rule intact — didn’t move the Forest Service. It recommended lifting the rule completely and is expected to make it official before the end of October.

“It’s just another broken promise to tribes as far as we’re concerned,” Starbard said.

The nine tribes said as much in an Oct. 13 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen.

The three-page letter is unequivocal, with one sentence in boldface: “We refuse to endow legitimacy upon a process that has disregarded our input at every turn.” 

The letter demands an updated environmental impact statement reflecting that the tribes have withdrawn their cooperation.

Marina Anderson, administrator of the Organized Village of Kasaan on Prince of Wales Island, said it was clear that for the federal government, tribal consultation was not taken seriously.

“It was apparent that our participation — requested by the federal government in the throes of this rulemaking process — was a form of box-checking, a form of the government saying that they had consulted with us properly and they met with the Indigenous people properly,” Anderson said. “And all of the information that was really relayed to the Forest Service from the tribes, in my perspective, that information was disregarded completely. And really, it distracted us from a lot of other things that we needed to focus on with our time as well.”

In a statement, USDA spokesman Larry Moore wrote that the tribes’ input “was integral to the agency’s analysis during the rulemaking process.”

Alaska’s congressional delegation has long chafed against the Clinton administration-era Roadless Rule.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been one of its most vocal critics. She addressed the Alaska Federation of Natives but didn’t mention this milestone during her 18 minutes of remarks. 

“We’ve ensured access to the Tongass by enacting legislation like the Sealaska lands bill and the mental health trust land exchange. We’ve got more on the way,” Murkowski said.

Republican Rep. Don Young applauded the rule change at a recent forum hosted by the Resources Development Council.

“I’m happy to say for those in the area, you know my position I’ve been there I’ve worked there. We’ve got it done. So let’s open up Southeast to the communities for their economic well being,” Young said.

It’s not just Alaska’s congressional delegation that wants to see the Roadless Rule repealed. Elected officials from across the spectrum have spoken out against it. 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has applauded the Trump administration’s rollback. But it was his predecessor and political opponent — Gov. Bill Walker — who got the ball rolling

But Anderson says elected officials in Alaska have not listened to the majority of residents who oppose the rollback of the Roadless Rule.

“Alaska’s delegation, this entire time, has had industry’s best interest, and they’ve been in full support of the exemption,” she said.

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

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