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By Jen Leahy
Decision to fully repeal the Roadless Rule on the Tongass National Forest opens 9.2 million acres of public lands to development
Today the U.S. Forest Service issued its final decision to eliminate conservation safeguards on 9.2 million acres of public land in the Tongass National Forest, a move that would allow logging and roadbuilding in areas of the forest that have never been developed. This dramatic policy shift poses a clear threat to the region’s world-class fisheries and vital big game habitat.
The Forest Service issued its proposed plan for the Tongass last fall, after the White House instructed the Secretary of Agriculture to fully exempt the forest from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a successful management plan that conserves national forest lands that have never been developed. This directive closely followed an off-the-record meeting between President Trump and Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy. By pursuing the most extreme option, the administration effectively foreclosed any opportunity for a compromise solution and forced a majority of stakeholders—locally and nationally—to oppose the agency’s proposal.
By some estimates, only 50 percent of the most mature, large-diameter trees in the Tongass remain standing. For two decades, the Roadless Rule has supported industries in Alaska that depend on conserving the remaining high-quality habitat, such as hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation, tourism, and commercial fishing. The rule also has built-in flexibility and allows for community development projects when they serve the public interest.
Here are three examples of how lifting the Roadless Rule might affect the fish, wildlife, and people who call the Tongass home.
The future of Southeast Alaska’s abundant salmon fisheries will face new risks.
According to the Forest Service, approximately 17,000 miles of pristine creeks, rivers and lakes in the Tongass provide optimal spawning and rearing conditions for all five species of wild Pacific salmon and several varieties of trout. The nutrient-rich waters of the Tongass produce approximately one-quarter of all commercially harvested salmon in Alaska and offer exciting sportfishing opportunities for anglers from around the world.
Critical to the health of this fishery are the intact stands of spruce and hemlock trees that anchor stream banks and help regulate water temperature by shading streams in the summer and insulating them in the winter. Because the Roadless Rule exemption results in a loss of protections for these key elements of salmon habitat, it could be a blow to the region’s commercial fishing and seafood processing industries.
Sitka blacktail deer populations are likely to see declines in the long-term.
Deer in Southeast Alaska are generally confined to old-growth forest winter ranges from December through March. According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, medium and large-tree hemlock and spruce forests provide the best winter habitat during deep snows. Larger trees offer more protection from the snow and provide greater access to winter food sources. Old forests also provide vital fawning habitat in the spring and foraging habitat in the fall.
Although deer populations tend to increase in the short-term (20 to 30 years) following timber harvest, populations tend to decline in the long run as the new canopy closes, resulting in lower habitat quality. In the agency’s cost-benefit analysis of Roadless Rule alternatives, the Forest Service determined that repealing the Roadless Rule “could lead to a decline in the deer population, particularly following severe winters.” Healthy populations of Sitka blacktail deer support recreational hunting opportunities and food security in rural communities.
Alaska’s economy could have a harder time rebounding.
The Forest Service projects that a full exemption of the Roadless Rule on the Tongass would result in $319,000 per year in lost revenue across Southeast Alaska’s recreation industry. That doesn’t account for the potential negative impacts of development to the entire tourism industry, which has contributed more than $700 million annually in visitor spending across Southeast Alaska in recent years.
While important for several reasons, Alaska’s timber industry supplies less than one percent of all jobs in Southeast Alaska. By the Forest Service’s own analysis, a full repeal of the Roadless Rule is expected to have only a “minimal beneficial effect” on the region’s forest products industry, and at a significant cost to taxpayers. Instead of focusing on cutting critically important undeveloped forests, we should be helping the timber industry transition to second growth forest restoration and management – an approach that would support both jobs and forest health.
What happens next?
Today’s final decision to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule is the unfortunate result of a politically driven process at the expense of irreplaceable fish and wildlife habitat. Six options were considered in the rulemaking process, ranging from “no action” to the full repeal of the Roadless Rule. Despite overwhelming public feedback to keep conservation safeguards in place, the administration chose the most extreme option and repealed the Roadless Rule.
Because the most unbalanced option was chosen, it will likely be challenged at every turn until a different outcome is reached. The TRCP is focused on achieving durable solutions, and we will continue to roll up our sleeves and find common ground in Alaska to safeguard roadless areas for the benefit of hunting, fishing, and recreation-based economies; encourage a transition away from logging intact forests that have never been developed and toward second-growth logging that benefits both mills and forest health; and support the needs of local communities to diversify their income sources and look long-term toward sustainable outdoor recreation industries.