It is hardly surprising or news that Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Alaska’s congressional delegation asked President Trump to restore the exemption for the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule. Every Alaska governor since the Roadless Rule was promulgated in 2001 has litigated its application to the Tongass, and every congressional delegation member has asked whomever was president to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule.
It is hardly surprising or news that President Trump raised the issue with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Why? Because total exemption of the Tongass from the 2001 Roadless Rule has been Department of Agriculture policy since 2003 and remains so today. The request is that Secretary Perdue either implement that policy or explain why he is changing it.
Eight days before the inauguration of President George W. Bush, the Clinton administration promulgated the 2001 Roadless Rule that designated 58 million acres of the national forests, including 9.4 million acres of the 16.9 million acre Tongass National Forest, as roadless areas.
The Clinton administration justified the national 2001 Roadless Rule on the grounds that there was a need for a national level “whole picture” review of national forest roadless areas because “Local management planning efforts may not always recognize the significance of inventoried roadless areas.”
This midnight rule was applied to the Tongass by the Clinton administration after the National Environmental Policy Act process was complete and there was no longer an opportunity for comment. The Tongass did not fit the purpose and need for the 2001 Roadless Rule because, unlike all other national forests, the Tongass had already undergone two congressional reviews (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 and the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990) and a Washington office secretarial review in 1999. Collectively they set aside over 6.6 million acres of the Tongass as wilderness and other restrictive land use categories prior to promulgation of the Roadless Rule. The rule’s statement of purpose and need did not justify a fourth review being needed to achieve the “national level” “whole picture” objective of the Roadless Rule.
The combination of the ANILCA, Tongass Timber Reform Act, and roadless designations has been to deny access for renewable energy projects; to make mining exploration and development difficult as a practical matter; to inhibit transportation in Southeast Alaska; and to preclude access for timber harvest.
While “reasonable” access is not prohibited for mining in roadless areas, mining companies often need road access to get heavy equipment from tidewater to a project site or to otherwise proceed with economically exploring and developing a mine or a hydro facility. For example, sometimes equipment is too large to be slung to a site by helicopter.
Road access to renewable energy projects, including geothermal to which road access is prohibited by the Roadless Rule, should be authorized.
Roads for access for Alaska timber harvest are not allowed. The timber industry, which supported 4,200 jobs in Southeast Alaska in 1992, is now reduced to one medium-sized sawmill and 300 jobs.
Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles challenged the rule in court in 2001. My administration settled that litigation with the Bush administration in 2003. The settlement required the Department of Agriculture to reconsider application of the rule to the Tongass. In so doing, the department identified total exemption of the Tongass as the best alternative during the 2003 rulemaking because:
“The Department has concluded that the social and economic hardships to Southeast Alaska outweigh the potential long-term ecological benefits because the Tongass Forest Plan adequately provides for the ecological sustainability of the Tongass. Every facet of Southeast Alaska’s economy is important and the potential adverse impacts from application of the roadless rule are not warranted, given the abundance of roadless areas and protections already afforded in the Tongass Forest Plan.”
This policy determination has not been changed by the department or overturned by a court, even though environmental groups successfully challenged the process by which the department had promulgated its 2003 rule.
So, from 2003 until the present, department policy has been total exemption of the Tongass from the Roadless Rule.
In January 2018, Gov. Bill Walker petitioned the Department of Agriculture for new rulemaking to implement the department’s total exemption policy. That rulemaking is ongoing.
Accordingly, it only makes sense for Gov. Dunleavy and the congressional delegation to ask the president and for the president to request that the department implement its existing policy or explain why it is not doing so.
Frank Murkowski served as Alaska governor from 2002-2006 and previously served as a U.S. senator. He is a Republican.