To Road or Not to Road
The latest backspin for the Tongass National Forest
By Isaac Stone Simonelli
Fantastic Geographic | iStock

alf of Southeast Alaska has no road access to its natural resources. During the 20th century, this fact was a consequence of slow development in a thinly populated territory. As the 21st century dawned, however, whether to allow or forbid roads in the wildest parts of the Panhandle became a political tennis match.

The outgoing Clinton administration served the first volley in 2001 with the Roadless Rule, which banned road building in areas of national forests without road access. This policy has the greatest impact in the nation’s largest forest, the Tongass in Southeast Alaska, where 9.4 million of its 17 million acres lack roads.

“Tongass National Forest has motivated people for a very, very long time. It’s the crown jewel of the National Forest system. It’s worth fighting for,” says Kyle Moselle, executive director of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Office of Project Management & Permitting. “I think that you’re always going to have a spectrum of opinions about how the Tongass should be managed.”

Alaskan officials protested immediately that the rule conflicted with the management plan already in place for the Tongass. By 2003, the Tongass was exempt, but in 2011 the ban was reinstated. Then a smash in 2020, when US Forest Service adopted the Alaska Roadless Rule, exempting the Tongass from the ban on road building, with limited exceptions.

However, the Alaska Roadless Rule has never been implemented in any meaningful way, arriving amid a change in presidential administrations. A Forest Service spokesperson says a new final rule is expected by the end of the year.

Heavily involved in developing the Alaska Roadless Rule, Moselle says he’s disappointed in the Biden administration’s proposal to repeal it.

“They are simply reverting back to the national rule that I think is a poor fit for the Tongass,” he says.

His view is in step with the Alaska Congressional delegation.

“Southeast Alaska deserves a sustainable economy, but the one-size-fits-all Roadless Rule works against that. It should never have been applied to Alaska, and it should not be re-applied this year or any other,” the delegation wrote in a joint statement in January.

The Salmon Forest
The back-and-forth stems from a fairly simple conflict: the timber industry needs logging roads to access resources on public lands, whereas intact trees have value for other interests.

“It’s all one ecosystem,” says Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Linda Behnken, “and you can’t have healthy fisheries without a healthy forest.”

Behnken says the Roadless Rule is vital to the Southeast commercial fishing industry.

“Our membership is dedicated to sustainable fisheries and healthy fishing communities,” Behnken says. “The health of the forest and the fishery is tightly connected, as is the economy of Southeast Alaska to the fisheries and to healthy forest.”

The streams and rivers of the Tongass produce 95 percent of the salmon caught in Southeast Alaska, Behnken explains. She goes on to note that sablefish utilize the nearshore areas, bays, and estuaries during their first year of life, and halibut feed on nearshore salmon during the summer months.

What happens inland affects those waters. Behnken points out that more than 250 miles of salmon spawning streams in Southeast have been blocked by failed culverts from past road building.

“The value forgone each year is $2.5 million from those streams that are blocked by failed culverts,” Behnken says.

Thus, the longline fishermen support the Biden administration’s restoration of the road building ban. “We’re seeing this as the administration’s willingness to really invest in what local people see as sustainable businesses and healthy local economies that’ll carry us into the future,” says Behnken.

Moselle is quick to point out that the 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule did not open the door for unregulated development in the Tongass. Both the 2016 management plan and the National Environmental Policy Act guide any potential development in the forest.

“Everyone recognizes the Tongass, as the Salmon Forest, provides extensive habitat for not only five species of salmon but a whole array of wildlife and other critters,” Moselle says.

“What people have to remember here,” he adds, “is that the removal of the 2001 Roadless Rule from the Tongass was removing a higher administrative level of regulation that wasn’t necessary, in part, because of the Tongass forest plan.”

Connecting Communities
The 2016 Tongass Forest Plan includes a local conservation strategy geared toward protecting old-growth-oriented fish and wildlife species. Even before the 2016 management plan, aquatic resources have been a focus for both state and federal agencies, Moselle says.

As examples, he points toward the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1991, aimed at increasing logging opportunities while also establishing stream buffers, and the 2008 version of the Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan that, in cooperation with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, developed the old-growth conservation strategy.

Moselle says that timber steals the headlines, but the exemption for the Tongass is more about being able to connect communities via WiFi communication and satellite systems.

“For example, the 2001 Roadless Rule exceptions do not allow for road building in inventory roadless areas related to the construction, expansion, or maintenance of facilities such as airports, marine access points, or communication sites. It doesn’t provide for road access in inventoried roadless areas to access Alaska Native cultural sites or to meet the transportation needs defined in the State of Alaska’s Southeast Alaska Transportation Plan, which relates to roads and ferries,” Moselle says. “These things weren’t in there because these are not national needs, right? But they are definitely needs in the Tongass.”

Moselle disputes a Forest Service statement that exceptions in the 2001 Roadless Rule include “mining, hydropower, interties, cell towers, trails and other recreation improvements, habitat restoration, federal aid highways and other statutorily provided road access needs, and other activities.”

The language in the rule, he says, does not specifically reference mining, hydropower, interties, or the like. Moreover, due to vagueness, the requirement for determining a “need” and the decision being left to the discretion of “the responsible official,” the 2001 rule created an on-the-ground situation that stifles potential in the region.

Yet those who call the Tongass home strongly support reinstating the 2001 Roadless Rule.

“The Tongass Forest is my home. Home to the ancient Tlingit and Haida indigenous peoples. The air we breathe, the water we depend on, the land we live upon, all pristine. It is a life to cherish. It is a way of living worth fighting for,” says Wanda Kashudoha Loescher Culp, a Tlingit activist and the Tongass coordinator for the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network. “The Biden administration’s restoration of the Roadless Rule is vital for protecting our forest homelands as Indigenous peoples of the Tongass.”

“We will continue engaging with the administration to ensure Indigenous women’s voices are heard and our expertise consulted moving forward. For our communities and the climate, it is time to invest in collaborative management practices that uplift Indigenous rights, food sovereignty, environmental protection, and land conservation in Alaska’s Tongass Forest,” she adds.

A New Strategy
By repealing the 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule and restoring the 2001 Roadless Rule, the Forest Service says it would be acting in a way that reflects input from Tribal consultation and sets the stage for building on tourism and fishing.

Earlier this year, the USDA announced $8.7 million in grants as part of its Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, aimed at replacing large-scale, old-growth timber harvesting with sustainable economic activities. Among the approved grants were mariculture projects, Indigenous cultural programs, and timber management. In July 2021, the USDA committed to investing $25 million in the region.

The strategy is misguided, as far as the state’s Congressional delegation is concerned.

“Let me be clear: $25 million doesn’t even come close to covering the economic damage that this administration’s policies will inflict on Southeast Alaska,” Senator Dan Sullivan said in response to the USDA’s announcement. “Alaskans have the right to make a living, support our families, and connect our communities and have a much greater interest in seeing the Tongass healthy and sustainably managed than outside extreme environmental groups pulling the strings in the Biden administration.”

Leila Kimbrell, executive director of the Resource Development Council for Alaska, agrees with Sullivan, saying that the money offered through the sustainability strategy falls far short of the historic economic value of the region.

“The Resource Development Council has long opposed the Roadless Rule and its application to the Tongass,” Kimbrell says.

She says the Alaska Roadless Rule, designed to meet the unique needs in the Tongass, is better because it supports diverse economic opportunities in the region, including the timber industry. “Anytime you have a one-size-fits-all approach, you’re going to find that it’s not going to be a good fit for everybody,” Kimbrell says.

Kimbrell also says that delays in the Biden administration releasing a decision can chill the investment climate for development projects in the region. “That has a really harmful effect on the Alaskan economy, bringing in uncertainty,” she says.

Even if the current administration reinstates the road-building ban, the next could reverse it. Regardless of which player has the upper hand at any time, the back-and-forth itself acts as a restriction on development.

The accidental equilibrium keeps trees standing, and that works for Behnken. “All we have to do is not cut those trees to keep contributing to that really important battle against climate change,” she says, noting that the Tongass contains nearly 40 percent of carbon sequestered by US forests.

She adds, “I would really hope that at some point any administration is going to recognize the absolute existential threat of climate change and the value of this forest for sequestering carbon, for supporting local economies on a sustainable, long-term basis.”

The Public Weighs In
When the previous administration crafted the Alaska Roadless Rule, most of the more than 400,000 public comments were in favor of keeping the additional layer of protection for roadless areas. Six Alaska Native tribes initially helped the USDA develop the new rule but withdrew their cooperation after learning that the Forest Service would move forward with a full exemption.

“We recognized that compromise was likely necessary to reach an alternative that we could all support. However, when a full exemption was selected as the preferred alternative due to undue political interference in the rulemaking process, the months that we spent working to find a good-faith compromise were discarded in favor of political expediency,” the tribes wrote in a letter to then-Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

The US Forest Service is now reviewing more than 110,000 comments about restoring the 2011 policy it received from individuals and organizations during a sixty-day comment period that ended on January 24.

“[The] initial assessment of the public comments is that the majority support the proposal to repeal [the 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule] and restore [2001] roadless rule protections,” a spokesperson from the Forest Service writes.

The next step for the Forest Service is to review the public comments, determine themes, and identify concerns; a new rule is anticipated by the end of the year.