SEACC Challenges Senator Murkowski’s Latest Statements on the Roadless Rule

Written by Dan Cannon

October 2, 2019

Recently Senator Lisa Murkowski wrote an Opinion Editorial in the Washington Post praising President Trump’s desire to exempt the Tongass National Forest from National Roadless Rule protections.

We asked SEACC’s Grassroots Attorney Buck Lindekugel, who has worked to conserve valuable resources on the Tongass since 1988, to fact check Senator Murkowski’s editorial, paragraph by paragraph. It’s wonky but the facts don’t lie.

Senator Murkowski: Why I support Trump’s proposal to lift restrictions in the Tongass

News that President Trump may seek to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from the Clinton-era “roadless rule,” opening up more of the region to potential development, has met with the typical alarm from the president’s critics. So it’s time to set the record straight and explain why every statewide elected official in Alaska supports an exemption from the regulation.

Buck Lindekugel: The Senator had to refer to “statewide” elected officials because several elected Tribal Presidents and Alaska State legislators support keeping the roadless rule on the Tongass. Senator Murkowski must have missed the powerful statements of support from Organized Village of Kake Tribal President Joel Jackson and Representative Sara Hannan at SEACC’s Turnout for the Tongass Rally in June.

Senator Murkowski: The Tongass, the largest national forest in the United States at 16.7 million acres, is larger than West Virginia. Located in southeast Alaska, it is an archipelago and comprises more than 80 percent of the regional land base. It is overwhelmingly road-free, unlogged, rich in wildlife and, despite what you may have read, will remain so even if exempted from the roadless rule.

Buck Lindekugel: The Senator leaves out some key facts: Two-thirds of the Tongass (11.3 million acres) is barren rock, glaciers, muskeg and scrub timber. Only one-third of the Tongass contains commercial forest land (capable of producing at least 8,000 board feet of timber per acre), but most of that is considered low value and virtually never logged.

In fact, the Tongass includes a narrow strip of steep, rugged mountains and icefields along the mainland and more than 1,000 offshore islands in a 500-mile long, 120-mile wide archipelago that is Southeast Alaska. Currently, nearly 4,000 miles of roads* exist on the Tongass National Forest. The access problem on the Tongass isn’t from too few roads. Instead, with over 11,000 miles of coastline, it’s the increasing scarcity of unimpaired, safe boat anchorages, coupled with ever-increasing user demand.

Senator Murkowski: That’s because protecting the unique roadless values within the Tongass has long been a priority in southeast Alaska and nationally. Congress has enshrined many of those protections in law, designating 5.7 million acres of and another 728,000 acres that are managed in a roadless state to maintain wilderness characteristics. Sweeping stream buffers authorized under another measure protect fish and wildlife habitat.

Buck Lindekugel: Less than 3 percent of the lands (161,126 acres) designated as Wilderness on the Tongass contain the biggest, most spectacular stands of virgin rainforest trees important for recreation, bears, salmon, subsistence, hunting, fishing, and tourism*. Only 30% of the lands (1.7 million acres) currently designated as Wilderness on the Tongass are considered commercial forestlands*. The vast majority of these lands are low-value forest that would never be logged.

The 728,000 acres Senator Murkowski refers to as, explained in the 2016 Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan (TLMP), are designated Legislated Land Use Designation (LUD) II lands. These lands are not managed “to maintain their wilderness characteristics” but to “retain their wildland character.” Unlike Wilderness, mineral development is allowed in LUD II’s, as are water and power developments (if designed to be compatible with the area’s primitive characteristics). Roads are permitted “only for access to authorized uses, transportation needs identified by the state, or vital linkages.”

The 1990 Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA) mandated minimum 100-foot no buffers on all Tongass salmon and resident fish streams. The Conference Report on the Fiscal Year (FY) 1994 Congressional Appropriations Act for Interior and Related Agencies (Appendix A) directed the Forest Service to study and report to Congress on the effectiveness of Forest Service salmon and steelhead habitat protection on the Tongass and determine if any additional protection was needed. In response, the Forest Service issued the 1995 Anadromous Fish Habitat Assessment (AFHA). The agency concluded that “current measures, and their implementation, were not fully effective in preventing habitat degradation or protecting salmon and steelhead stocks over the long term.*” As a result, the 1997 Revised Tongass Plan substantially increased buffer protections for salmon streams beyond the TTRA 100-foot minimum.

Senator Murkowski: When combined with national monument and other natural-setting land use designations, more than 13 million acres of the Tongass are already explicitly restricted from resource development or are required to be managed as roadless areas. That’s nearly 80 percent of the forest.

Buck Lindekugel: Not quite Senator Murkowski. While LUD II lands are off limits to commercial logging, only designated wilderness (nearly 6 million acres) are off limits to mineral, power, or hydro development. Moreover, “resource development” is not always equivalent to economic development. All these lands support Alaska salmon, wildlife, outdoor recreation, and scenic vistas, which support the region’s thriving salmon and visitor industries.

Senator Murkowski: It is also critical to understand that all of the designations listed above, and all of the protections they afford, will apply to the Tongass regardless of what happens with the roadless rule.

Most would agree that prohibiting development on such vast expanses within a 16.7-million-acre forest demonstrates sufficient protection. That is why so many Alaskans believe the burdensome roadless rule is unnecessary, and why we are urging the U.S. Forest Service to restore balance in its management by exempting the Tongass from it.

Buck Lindekugel: Every old-growth tree on the Tongass is not created equal. The vast majority of old-growth trees on the Tongass are short and stubby. These trees, while old, have less economic and environmental value than the far more rare cathedral stands of old-growth rainforest that are targeted by the timber industry and are important for recreation, bears, salmon, hunting, fishing, subsistence and tourism.

Each acre possesses different attributes, different habitat values, different spatial relationships to other habitats (including previously logged stands), different proximity to communities, and different uses by humans. As noted in the 2016 TLMP Final EIS: “Forest structure is important because it reflects the complex spatial and temporal interactions between plant growth (e.g., dispersal and competition), environmental gradients (e.g., geology, soils, slope, aspect, elevation, and climate), and disturbance (e.g., wind and logging).” “Each of the communities in Southeast Alaska has a distinct home range where concentrated use occurs, with a wide range of use typically occurring on a less. concentrated scale outside the normal home range.” History and clan relationships also give rise to local customary rules about use areas.” “Each wildlife species has its own unique habitat needs. Sitka black-tailed deer, a species particularly important for subsistence hunting and as prey for wolves, are limited primarily by the availability of low-elevation old growth needed in winter.”

SEACC would like to encourage the Senator to listen to what the public is saying. According to the Forest Service’s Summary of Written Public Comment for the Alaska Roadless Rule Scoping Period: “The majority of comments received opposed changing the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule for Alaska.”

Senator Murkowski: The regulation, implemented at the last minute by the Clinton administration, prevents road construction, road reconstruction and timber harvesting across millions of acres in the Tongass. Many Alaskans believe the roadless rule should never have been applied to our state because of the uncertainty and barriers it imposes. It works against common-sense projects such as renewable hydropower — raising costs, extending approval timelines and causing some projects to be nixed altogether.

Buck Lindekugel: Senator Murkowski is not entirely accurate here. Yes, the final rule was published on January 12, 2001, 10 days before President Clinton left office, but this rulemaking process began three years earlier in January 1998, when United States Forest Service (USFS) Chief Dombeck proposed to temporarily suspend road construction and reconstruction in Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRA) and provided advanced notice of a proposal to revise agency regulations on the management of the Forest Transportation System. Dombeck issued an interim rule on Feb. 12, 1999, suspending road construction in IRAs for 18 months. On Oct. 13, 1999, Pres. Clinton directed the USFS to develop regulations that would provide appropriate long-term protection for “currently inventoried roadless areas.” The Forest Service published the Notice Of Intent to prepare an EIS on the proposed Roadless Rule on Oct. 19, 1999. On May 10, 2000, the USFS issued a proposed rule. The DEIS was released for public review on May 19, 2000 for a 60-day comment period. The Final EIS was published on Nov. 17, 2000. During the scoping process, the USFS hosted 187 public meetings. During the comment period on the DEIS, the USFS hosted two cycles of about 430 public meetings – one to share information; the 2nd to collect oral comments. These meetings drew over 23,000 people nationwide. As reported in the Federal Register when it issued the final rule, “[b]y the close of the comment period, the agency received over 1 million postcards or other form letters; 60,000 original letters; 90,000 electronic mail messages.” “The majority of these respondents asked for the prohibitions to immediately take effect on the Tongass National Forest.”

According to the July 13, 2000 Alaska Roadless Draft EIS Hearing Report “many more” (59%) Southeast Alaskans supported including the Tongass National Forest in the Roadless Rule.

The Senator fails to tell the whole truth. Over the past eight years, the USFS approved nine projects in Tongass inventoried Roadless areas related to hydropower and other energy development, as well as two transmission lines — the Swan-Tyee and Kake-Petersburg Interties. With Southeast Alaska’s sparse population and multiple, small load centers separated by steep topography and marine waters, the costs associated with construction and expansion of storage and transmission facilities typically exceed the resulting public benefits. Consequently, developers routinely build power lines in Southeast Alaska without roads because the high cost of building and maintaining roads makes them uneconomical.

Senator Murkowski: That’s a real problem for southeast Alaska, where less than 1 percent of the land base is privately held. The region’s social and economic health is closely tied to resource-dependent industries, including fishing, forestry, mining and tourism. All of those depend on reasonable access to the Tongass, but over the years, that access has been significantly reduced.

Buck Lindekugel: No….Check out the 2016 TLMP Final EIS, Sealaska Corporation owns 363,000 acres (2.0 %); Native village corporations own 292,000 acres (1.6 %); other private owners 190,000 acres (1.1%). So, 4.76 % of the land within the exterior boundary of the Tongass is “private.’ Another 296,000 acres is owned by the State of Alaska. This includes 48,472 acres in the Southeast State Forest, the primary purpose for which is timber management under AS 41.17.200(a). The latest Southern Southeast Forest Inventory estimated 69,790 acres of state land potentially appropriate for logging. In addition to the lands available for logging on the Southern Southeast State Forest, about 23,198 acres of state land is classified for “General Use” which allows logging. The Alaska Mental Health Trust also owns close to 250,000 acres of timber lands in Southeast Alaska. The Trust has logged extensively at Leask Lakes on Revilla Island and on Trust parcels on Gravina Island & Prince of Wales Island.

The numbers speak for themselves – combined, the seafood and visitor sectors account for 26% of the jobs and 21% of earnings in SE Alaska – 2019 Southeast Alaska by the Numbers. The timber industry represents less than 1% of jobs and earnings region wide (again).

According to Ellis & Calvin 1995, 55% of the best small boat anchorages on 11,000 miles of Tongass shorelines are already impaired. These anchorages are also in high demand.

Senator Murkowski: The result? While much of America is experiencing record-low unemployment, many communities in the Tongass are seeing fewer job opportunities, diminished incomes, high energy costs and even declining populations as residents look elsewhere for stable year-round work.

Buck Lindekugel: Power lines in Southeast Alaska are typically built without road access because of the high cost of building and maintaining roads. The region’s sparse population and multiple, small load centers are separated by rugged and steep topography and marine waters. Together, this means the development and maintenance costs associated with construction and expansion of storage and transmission facilities typically exceed the public benefits associated with their construction.

Senator Murkowski: The roadless rule has hurt the timber industry, which now consists of just a handful of small, family-owned forest products companies. It also affects mining, transportation, energy and more. But it is critical — and only fair — to acknowledge that lifting the roadless rule would not automatically result in the development of more of the forest.

Buck Lindekugel: Come on, Senator Murkowski. According to the State of Alaska’s own economic experts, the Tongass timber industry has been in a state of decline primarily because of permanent and fundamental changes in global timber markets, high labor costs, and distance from markets*.

The 1872 Mining Law guarantees access to mineral claims, and transportation and energy development needs have been accommodated under the current rule. Of the 55 projects approved in Alaska roadless areas by the Forest Service as of January 2018, twenty-three involved mining exploration activities. Over the past eight years, the Forest Service has approved eight permits related to hydro projects, including the Swan Lake-Tyee and Kake-Petersburg Interties.

Senator Murkowski: New projects in areas where development is allowed would still have to secure all relevant federal approvals, including compliance with the Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan, the National Environmental Policy Act and other applicable laws such as the Clean Water Act.

The one-size-fits-all roadless rule is an unnecessary layer of paralyzing regulation that should never have been applied to Alaska. A full exemption from it has always been my preference, as well as the united preference of our state’s congressional delegation and that of Alaska’s governors, regardless of party. It will allow Alaskans to create needed opportunities for a sustainable year-round economy, while still being good stewards of our lands and waters.

Buck Lindekugel: On April 10, 2019, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands held a hearing entitled “Examining the Spending Priorities and Missions of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.” In follow up to Questions for The Record from Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL), the Forest Service explained that approval of Roadless Rule exemptions by the Alaska Regional Forester under delegated authority from the Chief of the Forest Service generally take only one to three weeks, substantially faster than the one to three months previously needed for approval from D.C. The Forest Service also confirmed that the current Forest Service road maintenance backlog in Alaska is $68 million.

Senator Murkowski’s Washington Post Opinion Editorial clearly falls short of telling the whole truth.

Make sure United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Perdue who is based in Washington, D.C. doesn’t hear from just Senator Murkowski — give him a call today and tell him the truth about the National Roadless Rule on the Tongass.

Additional citations:

  • 2018 Annual Report, Tongass National Forest (available here).
  • 1991 Tongass Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) at 3-166.
  • 2003 FSEIS at 3-83.
  • 1997 TLMP FEIS at 3-53
  • Alaska Economic Trends (Dec. 2003) (available here).

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