JUNEAU, Alaska, October 29, 2019 (ENS) – The U.S. Forest Service is seeking public comments on its plan to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule. The 60-day public comment period opens today.

Established in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska is the largest national forest in the United States at 16.7 million acres (68,000 km2).

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View from the East Glacier Trail in the Tongass National Forest, Aug. 8, 2019 (Photo by V’ron)

Tree species in the Tongass are Sitka spruce – now very rare, western hemlock, western red cedar, and Alaska yellow cedar.

Moose, deer, beaver, fox, and porcupine are common throughout the forest. All five species of Pacific salmon – chum, coho, king, pink and sockeye – thrive and spawn in the streams and waters of the Tongass National Forest.

The Forest Service proposal is contained in a draft environmental impact statement offering six alternatives to roadless management and a proposed Alaska Roadless Rule.

The Forest Service has published the documents in the Federal Register. The publication begins a 60-day public comment period on the proposed rule, and on each alternative outlined in the draft environmental impact statement, DEIS.

The DEIS, prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act, provides an analysis of six alternatives, which are options related to roadless management in Alaska.

The alternatives range from no action to the removal of the Tongass from the 2001 Roadless Rule. The Department has identified Alternative 6, which is complete removal, as the preferred alternative.

The options are:

Alternative 1 takes no action and would leave all of Alaska under the 2001 Roadless Rule, including the Tongass National Forest.

Alternative 2 provides regulatory protection for the majority (89 percent) of key watersheds inside roadless areas and would convert 18,000 old-growth acres and 10,000 young-growth acres previously identified as unsuitable timber lands to suitable timber lands.

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A mountain goat, Oreamnos americanus, near the summit of Northbird Mountain, Revilla Island. Tongass National Forest, Ketchikan Misty Fjords Ranger District, Sept. 2018. (Photo by Benjamyn Limle U.S. Forest Service)

Alternative 3 provides regulatory protections for all key watersheds inside and outside roadless areas, creates a community priority roadless designation that allows for recreational development and timber sales under one million board feet, and would convert 76,000 old-growth acres and 14,000 young-growth acres previously identified as unsuitable timber lands to suitable timber lands.

Alternative 4 restricts harvest and road-building activities in scenic viewsheds and most (88 percent) key watersheds inside roadless areas and would convert 158,000 old-growth acres and 15,000 young-growth acres previously identified as unsuitable timber lands to suitable timber lands.

Alternative 5 would remove 2.3 million acres from roadless area designation, protects some (59 percent) key watersheds, and would convert 165,000 old-growth acres and 17,000 young-growth acres previously identified as unsuitable timber lands to suitable timber lands.

Alternative 6 (preferred) would exempt the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule and is fully responsive to the State of Alaska’s petition. The alternative would remove all 9.2 million acres of inventoried roadless acres and would convert 165,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres previously identified as unsuitable timber lands to suitable timber lands.

“Removing the regulatory designation of roadless areas on the Tongass National Forest would not authorize any ground-disturbing activities,” the Forest Service says. “Instead, the proposed rule would return decision-making authority to the Forest Service, allowing decisions concerning timber harvest, road construction, and roadless area management on the Tongass National Forest to be made by local officials on a case-by-case basis.”

Conservation of roadless values would be achieved through other means, including the Tongass Land Management Plan specific to the Tongass National Forest.

“Today’s announcement on the Roadless Rule is further proof that Alaska’s economic outlook is looking brighter every day,” said Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy, a Republican.

“The ill-advised 2001 Roadless Rule shut down the timber industry in Southeast Alaska, wiping out jobs and economic opportunity for thousands of Alaskans,” the governor said. “I thank the USDA Forest Service and for listening to Alaskans’ wishes by taking the first step to rebuilding an entire industry, putting Alaskans back to work, and diversifying Alaska’s economy.”

Alternative 6 is fully responsive to the State of Alaska’s petition to completely remove the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule. This USDA preferred alternative removes all 9.2 million roadless acres and reclassifies 165,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres to suitable timber lands.

The Chugach National Forest would remain under the 2001 Roadless Rule.

“This shouldn’t even be part of the conversation, let alone an actual consideration,” said Ben Bulis, president of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, AFFTA.

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Successful fisherman catches a salmon in the Tongass National Forest near Juneau, Alaska Sept. 21, 2012 (Photo by Joseph)

“The Tongass National Forest is one of the painfully few places in our country where wild salmon and trout thrive, and the rich wilderness and teeming rivers are still left unspoiled by development,” said Bulis. “A repeal of the Roadless Rule would be a travesty for the fishery and the local community whose livelihood and economy rely on the health of those resources.”

Mark Hieronymus, registered Alaska guide and sportfish outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Program, said, “The Roadless areas of the Tongass, as well as the Tongass 77 salmon priority watersheds, contain highly productive fish habitat and unspoiled wildlands that are critical to the vibrant and ever-growing fishing, guide/outfitter, and tourism industries of southeast Alaska.”

“Combined,” said Hieronymus, “they contribute more than $2 billion in economic activity and roughly 26 percent of jobs in the region annually. The proposed repeal of the conservation measures inherent in the Roadless Rule is a direct threat to the success and continued contributions of these industries.”

Both conservationists say there is already a combined $168 million backlog of existing road maintenance and restoration of habitat impaired by those existing roads. If the Forest Service can’t keep up with the obligation of restoring what they’ve already impacted, there is little hope for conservation to be a priority moving forward, they said.

“We need the fly fishing industry and the angling public to let the U.S. Forest Service know just how bad of an idea the repeal of the Roadless Rule is,” says Bulis. “This is your land. America’s Salmon Forest belongs to all of us.”

The Forest Service is scheduling a series of public meetings and subsistence hearings. A list of those meeting locations will be available on the Alaska Roadless Rule project website.

The public has until midnight Alaska time on December 17 to submit comments on the documents. The documents are posted in the Federal Register and on the agency’s Alaska Roadless Rule site.

These are the ways the public can submit written comments:

Web: www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=54511
Email: akroadlessrule@fs.fed.us
Mail: USDA Forest Service, Attn: Alaska Roadless Rule, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, Alaska, 99802
Fax: 907-586-7852
In-person delivery to Forest Service, 709 W. 9th Street, Room 535B, Juneau, Alaska 99801

Written comments will help inform USDA as it moves toward a final decision about an Alaska-specific roadless rule. The Secretary of Agriculture is expected to make a final decision by June 2020.

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