USDA Releases EIS with Preferred Alternative to Exempt Tongass from Roadless Rule
The US Department of Agriculture has released the Final EIS examining six alternatives for rulemaking for Alaska Roadless Rule areas in the Tongass National Forest. Alternative 6, which is the preferred alternative, “provides maximum timber harvest opportunities as the full exemption alternative, which was requested by the State of Alaska’s petition,” the EIS states.
Governor Mike Dunleavy welcomed the news of the preferred alternative exempting Alaska from the 2001 Roadless Rule, stating, “After conducting a thorough, multi-year public process, the Forest Service has once again acknowledged that this onerous rule has imposed an unfair burden on our state.”
Alternative 6 exempts Alaska from the 2001 Roadless Rule, removing all 9.37 million inventoried roadless acres in the Tongass from roadless designation. Instead, those acres will be managed in accordance with the Tongass Forest Plan. Specifically relating to timber, Alternative 6 reverts a net total of 168,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres—previously identified as unsuitable timber lands—to suitable timber lands, “as they were when the roadless rule did not apply to the Tongass,” the EIS states.
The State of Alaska petitioned the Secretary of Agriculture to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule in 2018, asking for a state-specific roadless rule and becoming the third state to do so; Idaho and Colorado both have state-specific rules that supersede the 2001 Roadless Rule, completed in 2008 and 2012, respectively.
Alaska has contested the Roadless Rule since its inception, filing a complaint in 2001 that challenged its application in Alaska; however, amidst more than a decade of litigation, the Tongass was alternatively exempt and not exempt from Roadless Rule.
With its 2018 petition, the US Forest Service granted cooperating agency status to the State of Alaska. “The Forest Service and State of Alaska believed that the rulemaking represented a unique opportunity to collaboratively address and provide certainty to the roadless issue in the Tongass… The state-specific roadless rule identified in the preferred alternative would discontinue the existing regulation’s prohibitions and instead rely upon existing statutory and land management plan direction to manage roadless areas on the Tongass,” the EIS states.
A Land and Resource Management Plan, or Forest Plan, for the Tongass was completed in 1979, and was actually the first such plan finalized under the National Forest Management Act. The Tongass’ Forest Plan has been amended several times since, notably in 2008 in response to a Ninth Circuit Court ruling and in 2016 when the Secretary of Agriculture directed that the timber program in the Tongass transition to a young growth-based timber program. “The Forest Plan anticipates production of an average of 46 million board feet per year while transitioning to predominantly young growth harvest after about sixteen years,” the EIS states.
“Additional objectives of the 2016 Forest Plan Amendment include facilitation of the development of renewable energy projects and responding to findings of the 5-Year Review of the 2008 Forest Plan.”
According to a USDA release about the EIS, “Consistent with applicable regulations, there is a thirty-day waiting period before a final Record of Decision can rule would be issued by the Secretary of the Agriculture,” meaning a Record of Decision can be anticipated in late October. “The thirty-day waiting period will provide time for the Secretary to consider the purpose and need, weigh the alternatives, balance objectives, and issue a record of decision on the final rule.”
Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige said, “The communities of Southeast Alaska and the state as a whole will benefit from this decision in many ways, including improved access to public lands and improved economics not only for the many users of the Tongass National Forest but also those using the state and private lands surrounding the Tongass.”
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