The fish and wildlife of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, as well as the communities and industries that depend upon them, scored a significant victory last week. As you may have read, a federal appeals court ruled that the Bush administration erred in 2003 when it exempted the 17-million-acre rain forest from habitat protections the Clinton White House unveiled in 2001. The decision means the so-called “roadless rule” is back in effect in the Tongass and large swaths of old-growth forest are off-limits to road-building and logging, at least for now. That’s good. But as TU’s Mark Kaelke explains, the roadless rule has an ephemeral history on the Tongass and what the Tongass’ high-value salmon and trout watersheds (called the Tongass 77) need is permanent protection enacted by Congress.
By Mark Kaelke
In 2001, U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck instituted what became known as the roadless rule. In an effort to protect important fish and wildlife habitat, the rule prohibited the building of new roads in pristine areas of the country’s national forests. In 2003, the Bush administration chose to exempt the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, arguing that enough habitat protections already existed in this rare coastal temperate rainforest. The Bush administration move, like the 2001 roadless rule itself, set off a series of legal battles which went back and forth for years. Finally, the Ninth Circuit Court settled the matter on July 29 and the Tongass is now included in national roadless protections.
Although the court victory last month was encouraging, many people, myself included, believe the Tongass has enjoyed de facto roadless protection since about 2008 when it became clear the Forest Service budgets could no longer subsidize the large-scale construction of new roads anywhere on the Tongass. That’s when the public finally began to realize timber receipts (or revenues collected from logging) were never going to be enough to pay for those roads either.
The roadless rule, whether applied legally or in a de facto manner, is good for the Tongass. More than 6,000 miles of road already exist in the Tongass, along with a substantial maintenance backlog to go with them. At one point not long ago roughly 66 percent of road crossings (culverts and bridges) on those 6,000 miles of road impeded fish passage. Clearly, recreation and tourism businesses, anglers, hunters and traditional gatherers all benefit from pristine, roadless places and the fish, game and forest products found in them. On the other hand, critics cite the need for at least some new roads to access emerging mining and alternative energy projects on the Tongass. This is a valid concern and if these projects are viable, then developing road access to them should be analyzed, planned and decided on a case by case basis.
I have no doubt Alaska’s Congressional delegation will find ways to do just that. The biggest issue that remains regarding the roadless rule in my mind though is that although it’s generally a good thing for the Tongass, it could change with the next occupant of the White House. There are high-value fish and wildlife areas in the Tongass that are worthy of strong, durable protection from development, and they should not be subject to legal maneuvering or politics. They’re called the Tongass 77 and you can learn more about them here . Congress and the American people should decide the fate of these areas and should do so in a way that affords them protections for generations to come, not temporary measures that last only as long as an administration is in place or a court has a particular make-up. Trout Unlimited, Alaska Program, is advocating for Congressional passage of Tongass 77 legislation. We hope you’ll join the campaign.
Mark Kaelke is TU’s Southeast Alaska Project Director. A 27-year resident of Juneau. Kaelke is a former fishing guide and tourism entrepreneur.