The Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service (FS) proposes to revise its regulations to exempt  Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from the “2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule,” With certain limited exceptions, that 2001 Rule prohibits tree harvesting and road construction or reconstruction within designated “inventoried roadless areas,” which currently include much of the Tongass Forest.  While the proposed new regulations would not directly authorize any specific ground-disturbing activities, making the 2001 Roadless Rule inapplicable to the Tongass would open the door to future deforestation for road-building, commercial logging, and potentially other  industrial operations.  Public Comments on the Forest Service proposal must be received no later than 11:59 PM Eastern Time on December 17, 2019, in order to be considered.

The Basics:
  • The Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska is the United States’ largest national forest.  In combination with British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest immediately to the south, it encompasses the largest intact temperate rainforest on earth.
  • Because trees in the Tongass National Forest store some 650 tons of carbon dioxide — an amount roughly equivalent to half of the carbon gas emissions in the United States in 2017 — the Forest serves an important role in protecting against or mitigating  climate change.
  • In 2001 USDA published regulations known as the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (hereafter referred to as the 2001 Roadless Rule). Those regulations established (with certain limited exceptions) nationwide prohibitions on timber harvest, road construction, and road reconstruction within “inventoried roadless areas,” and were intended to provide lasting protection for such areas within the National Forest System in the context of multiple-use land management.
  • There are over 21.9 million acres of national forest in the State of Alaska, of which approximately 14.7 million acres (67%) are considered inventoried roadless areas as defined by the 2001 Roadless Rule, including substantial portions of both the Tongass and Chugach National Forests.
  • The Tongass National Forest covers approximately 16.7 million acres, of which approximately 9.2 million (55%) acres are currently designated inventoried roadless areas.
  • The proposed new regulations would eliminate any applicability of the 2001 Roadless Rule to these 9.2 million, currently protected, acres of the Tongass, — potentially opening them up to future road building and timber harvesting, as well as possibly energy and mining industry activities.
  • The proposal is responsive to a petition from the State of Alaska.  Current and former officials in Alaskan State Government have long opposed application of the 2001 Roadless Rule to the Tongass, in the hope that expanded harvesting of that Forest might bolster the State’s struggling timber industry, and that improved road access within the Tongass might foster mining and/or other industrial activities beneficial to the economy of rural Alaska.
  • Environmentalists, Native Alaskan tribal leaders, and other experts and elements of Alaskan society question whether the State’s timber industry can be saved in any event, and fear that exemption of the Tongass from the 2001 Roadless Rule will result in intrusions on and destruction of the Forest to a degree severely damaging to Alaska’s much more economically important salmon industry, interference with subsistence salmon harvesting by rural Alaskans, and other seriously negative ecological and environmental effects.
  • The proposed rulemaking focuses primarily on the Tongass National Forest, but also includes  roadless area boundary modification and correction provisions applicable to the Chugach National Forest.
Summary of the Proposed New Regulations:

The new regulations proposed by the USDA Forest Service would provide that the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule “shall not apply to the Tongass National Forest.”  In addition, with respect to the Chugach National Forest, the regulations would permit the Regional Forester for the Alaska Region to make administrative corrections to inventoried roadless area boundaries, after a 30-day period for public notice and opportunity to comment. (Such administrative “corrections” would be limited to adjustments that remedy clerical errors, typographical errors, mapping errors, improvements in mapping technology, conformance to statutory or regulatory changes, or incorporation of changes due to land exchanges.)  The Regional Forester would also be able to issue modifications to the classifications and boundaries of an inventoried roadless area in the Chugach Forest after a 45-day period for public notice and opportunity to comment.

The Agency’s Justification for Its Proposal:

Emphasizing the State of Alaska’s opposition to applicability of the 2001 Roadless Rule to the Tongass National Forest, the USDA/FS cites federalism as a central rationale for the proposed regulatory revisions. The Agency states that in proposing total exemption of the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, instead of other alternatives discussed in its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), it is giving “substantial weight to the State’s policy preferences as expressed in the incoming Petition,” specifically the State’s emphasis on rural economic development opportunities.

According to the Agency, moreover, freeing the Tongass from the strictures of the Roadless Rule will not result in extensive additional timber harvesting or have a dramatic negative impact on the Forest, the ecology, or the environment.   The Notice of proposed Rulemaking explains that even if federal restrictions were to be lifted, the Forest Service would have to amend its present forest management plan to hold any new timber sale. The Forest Service claims that even though 9.2 million acres presently designated as inventoried roadless areas would be freed from the Roadless Rule under its proposal, only 185,000 acres would actually be added to the areas that may be considered for timber harvest,  Although acknowledging that some trade-offs between environmental protection and potential economic development are involved, USDA/FS contends that its proposed regulatory revisions will not have severe negative impacts on salmon, the ecological system, or the environment (including through climate change related to the Forest’s carbon absorption and storage role).

Additional Information and Resources:

The USDA/FS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (the NPRM), combined with a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that discusses the Agency’s analysis of likely effects of the current proposal as well as five other alternative, and less extreme, approaches, sets out the Government’s position and arguments in detail.  Importantly, those arguments seem largely predicated on an assumption that the current Forest Management Plan for the Tongass will not be substantially changed in the wake of its exemption from the 2001 Roadless Rule.  It is unclear whether this is an accurate assumption.  However, since the accuracy of the assumption is neither provable nor disproven, it is unclear how much logging would take place in the Tongass if federal restrictions were lifted, This is because the Forest Service would have to amend its management plan to hold any new timber sale. The 2016 plan identified 962,000 acres as suitable for commercial timber and suggested no more than 568,000 acres of that should be logged. According to the NPRM, even though 9.2 million acres of inventoried roadless areas would be freed from the roadless rule under the Agency’s proposal, only 185,000 acres would actually be added to the areas that may be considered for timber harvest.

Nevertheless, what is clear is that the presently proposed action would eliminate any legally binding regulatory obstacle to a future Forest Management Plan that might permit substantially increased deforestation of the Tongass and devotion of significant parts of its acreage to logging, mining, or other industrial purposes. Should the current or a future Administration choose to do so, it will be easier to alter the usage, landscape, and character of the Tongass National Forest through administrative action (with no requirement of notice to or consideration of comments by the public) once the Forest is no longer subject to the 2001 Roadless Rule. As with other deregulatory actions taken during the Trump Administration, the issue raised by the USDA/FS proposal involves balancing local, possibly short-term economic development interests against ecological and environmental concerns that may be of nationwide, or even global, scope.

Additional materials you may wish to review in order to more fully understand what is at stake include the original 2001 Roadless Rule (explaining its intent to “provide lasting protection for inventoried roadless areas within the National Forest System in the context of multiple-use management).  The position of the Alaska State government is summarized in a 2018 article in the Alaska Daily News entitled “Why we’re trying to lift the ‘Roadless Rule,” as well as another, more recent Anchorage Daily News Opinion piece authored by a former Governor of the State.

Articles expressing or reporting on environmental or ecological concerns and opposition to the USDA/FS proposal have been published by National Public Radio, in the Washington Post and Inside Climate News, as well as Outdoor Life and The Revelator (affiliated with the Center for Biological Diversity), not to mention a blog characterizing the Tongass as the “American Salmon Forest.”   Other informative articles appear on various websites, including that of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Audubon as well as Audubon Alaska.  An illuminating critique of the USDA/FS Draft Environmental Impact Statement and discussion of relevant science appears on the Scientific American website; and an E&E News article discusses the issue of whether lifting Roadless Rule restrictions on the Tongass will help the Alaska timer industry.  A “timeline” and history of the 2001 Roadless Rule and opposition to it can be found on the Earth Justice website; and a 2016 Natural Resources Defense Council discussion of the importance of the Roadless Rule to preserving the Tongass National Forest remains relevant to the present issue.

If You are Ready to Comment on the Proposed Changes to Forest Service Regulations:

The easiest means of commenting on the proposed exemption of Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule is to go to the Comment Page for this topic on the Government’s eRulemaking website, type your comments into the box provided for that purpose, and follow the other instructions on that page for comment submission. Alternatively, you can send written comments in hard-copy form to: Alaska Roadless Rule, USDA Forest Service, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, Alaska 99802-1628. All comments must be received by 11:59 PM Eastern Time on December 17, 2019, in order to be considered.