Last week, nine native Alaska tribes filed a petition calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to halt the removal of protections for the Tongass National Forest, the country's largest reserve of public woodlands, which the tribes say is vital to their livelihoods.
Currently, more than half of the forest's 16.7 million acres are protected under the Roadless Rule, which, since 2001, has prohibited road building and commercial logging in 58 million acres of U.S. forests.
But the Trump Administration is seeking to open the old-growth forest for logging and has requested that the U.S. Forest Service, part of the USDA, lift the rule from the Tongass, a process that is in its final stages. A decision is expected later this summer.
The forest is critical to indigenous economies in southeastern Alaska. Tribal members hunt for deer and moose, fish for salmon, gather mushrooms, berries and medicinal plants, and use the massive trees to carve canoes and totem poles.
The forest is "priceless," said Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, one of the tribes that signed the petition. "It's basically our grocery store."
Conventional grocery shopping is not feasible in the highly isolated region, Jackson said, with prices for food running two or three times more than they would in the city.
Logging and road building in the Tongass could deplete and disrupt plant and animal populations in the ecosystem that the tribes rely on, the petition says.
"Not only is it devastating for the land, but for our people and for the survival of our culture," said Marina Anderson, tribal administrator for the Organized Village of Kasaan, which also joined the petition. "It's really essential that we keep these old growth timber stands intact."
A spokesperson for the USDA said agency officials are refraining from comment until after they have reviewed the July 21 petition.
A Long-Sought Exemption
President Trump instructed Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to remove the Tongass from the Roadless Rule in August—a move that Alaska leaders favor.
"With the Trump administration's help, the devastating Clinton-era roadless rule may soon be history, and the Tongass restored to a managed multi-use forest as it was always intended," Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) said in his State of the State address in January.
In a September 2019 op-ed for The Washington Post, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) claimed that the Tongass is sufficiently protected without the Roadless Rule.
"Many Alaskans believe the roadless rule should never have been applied to our state because of the uncertainty and barriers it imposes," Murkowski said in the op-ed. "It works against common-sense projects such as renewable hydropower—raising costs, extending approval timelines and causing some projects to be nixed altogether."
Jim Furnish, who served as deputy chief of the Forest Service from 1999 to 2002, during the time that the Roadless Rule was enacted, has been vocal in his support for the rule, including testifying before Congress in November.
He said he finds the arguments in favor of removing the rule "totally baseless," in part because the rule already allows exceptions for infrastructure needs that have come up in the nearly two decades since the rule was adopted. There have been at least 57 such exceptions for developments such as mines, roads and hydroelectric projects.
"The Forest Service has been very accommodating of issues that popped up that were difficult to foresee 20 year previously," Furnish said, "to make accommodations so legitimate needs could be met."
Tribal Frustrations With the Process
The petition asks the USDA to start a new rulemaking process in which lands that are important to the tribes are conserved and protected. It requests a more thorough consultation with tribes, and the elevation of their governments as collaborative partners with the U.S. Forest Service in decisions affecting areas important to tribal subsistence and traditions. The petition also requests the development of a process to identify such locations.
During the current process to remove Roadless Rule protections from the Tongass, tribes felt their feedback was disregarded.
The Forest Service asked Jackson and the Organized Village of Kake, along with five other tribes and the state of Alaska, for input on the exemption as a cooperating agency. But the process of communicating their traditional uses of the land to the Forest Service was too fast, Jackson said, and he felt like he didn't have enough time to review and understand the paperwork before he was asked to give feedback.
"My position was always to leave the Roadless Rule alone," Jackson said. "By about the fifth meeting that we had, they came out and said, 'Well, the USDA is going to completely lift the Roadless Rule,' at which point I didn't see no point in being a cooperating agency when they already made their decision."
After that, Jackson said, he pulled his tribe out of discussions with the Forest Service.
"It was a complete waste of time, in my view—our time, my staff's time," he said.
Tribal members in the village of Kasaan were frustrated when they tried to provide input on the Forest Service plan. Anderson, the tribal administrator, said she felt their comments were disregarded and appeared to have no impact during the rulemaking process.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, a meeting with a USDA official was moved online. She asked to have the meeting postponed, but received no response.
"I had to get my council set up on Zoom, which in the village can take hours," Anderson said. Then the next morning they switched it to a teleconference, which is not reliable. "So it's not only that they didn't look at the comments but there was a complete lack of respect throughout the entire process."
Benefits to the Global Climate and the Local Salmon
"It contains massive amounts of carbon in the forest areas, much more than, say, the Amazon on a per acre basis," Furnish said. "The Amazon is so huge, it gets credit for being the lungs of the Earth, so to speak, but the coastal temperate rainforests like the Tongass are quite unique."
The forest also helps the soil retain water and regulate river flows, which is particularly important to the region around Kasaan, which is exceptionally wet—the average annual precipitation is about 150 inches per year.
"With the old growth forest, it's capable of soaking that up throughout the year," Anderson said. "There's a nice, steady flow for the salmon to return."
Furnish expects that if the Forest Service and the USDA remove the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, they would be challenged in court. Although he said he was "very discouraged" by this process, he has hope that if Joe Biden wins the presidency in November, his administration would reverse this decision.
"The Tongass represents this vast treasure of landscape in Alaska," Furnish said. "The values that go from carbon stores, to the fish, to recreational tourism and water quality are just bottomless. It's just an incredible national treasure and now to strip these roadless protections away; it's just the wrong thing at the wrong time for the wrong reasons."