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Public Rebuts Alaska Rainforest Logging, Roadless Exemption Plan

May 19, 2020, 2:41 PM

The public is broadly opposed to the Trump administration’s plan to open most of the world’s largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest to logging and road-building, according to an internal U.S. Forest Service report.

Ninety-six percent of 15,909 public comment letters that the Forest Service received about the proposal supported maintaining protections for Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest under the 2001 Roadless Rule, according to the report. The report was written in April and obtained in May by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, a local environmental group.

About 1% of the public comments the Forest Service received supported dropping roadless protections for the forest, the report said.

The volume of comments favoring maintaining roadless protections for the Tongass is an “astonishingly high number,” said Meredith Trainor, executive director of SEACC. “To have 96% of them all want the same option and keep the Roadless Rule on the Tongass is mind-blowing.”

Such overwhelming opposition to a regulation reflected in public comments is rare, said Jim Furnish, a former Forest Service deputy chief in President Bill Clinton’s administration who was one of the 2001 Roadless Rule’s chief architects.

“It’s just extremely difficult to ignore the weight of that,” Furnish said.

Eager to Open

With vast areas covered in centuries-old hemlock and Sitka spruce, the 16.8 million-acre Tongass National Forest holds 8% of the carbon stored in continental U.S. forests. It plays an outsized role in helping to stabilize the climate because its old-growth trees and soil store more carbon dioxide acre-for-acre than the Amazon.

Parts of the Tongass have been logged in the past, and the Trump administration is eager to open the forest to new development.

In 2019, the administration responded to a petition from the state of Alaska by proposing to open 9.2 million acres of the forest to new logging and exempting the Tongass from the 2001 Roadless Rule.

The rule prohibits road-building and logging in many unprotected regions of America’s national forests.

President Donald Trump in August instructed the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, to grant a Roadless Rule exemption for the Tongass after meeting with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R), the Washington Post reported.

A public comment period on the draft proposal on the exemption closed in December. The final plan was originally scheduled to be published in April and is due anytime.

Not a ‘Vote-Counting Process’

Overall, the Forest Service received 248,520 public comments on the proposal, most of them form letters.

The internal Forest Service report didn’t analyze the form letters because the service’s decision-making process under the National Environmental Policy Act gives much greater weight to unique comments submitted individually. For that reason, the internal report only analyzed the 15,909 letters, 96% wanting to continue to protect the Tongass.

The Forest Service is “considering all views and perspectives,” said Aleksey Minchenkov, acting assistant director of the Forest Service’s office of communications.

Alaska state officials said they remain firm in their position that dropping roadless protections for the Tongass is needed to develop the region’s economy.

The governor’s office said Monday that the the Roadless Rule is tantamount to “misguided federal intrusion.”

“Most Alaskans believe that reaffirming the Tongass as a multiple-use forest will go a long way toward restoring Southeast’s struggling economy,” Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said.

The decision to open the Tongass to logging is “not a simple vote-counting process,” said Dan Saddler, a legislative analyst for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

“Public comment is only one aspect of the information-gathering process,” he said.

‘Endowed’ With Minerals

In November, the Forest Service said it was unable to say why it was dropping roadless protections for the Tongass.

The Forest Service and timber industry say that waiving the rule would open only a small part of the 16.8-million-acre forest to logging, because much of it is protected wilderness and forest officials don’t consider the rest to be ideal for harvesting.

The Tongass is “endowed with mineral wealth that supported the initial industrial developments of the Alaska territory,” wrote Deantha Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, in the group’s comments supporting full Roadless Rule exemption for the forest.

Environmental groups and scientists said the exemption leaves the door open for industry eventually to gain access to more than 9 million acres of rainforest, including its carbon-rich ancient trees.

“Increased disturbance through logging, road building, and other development activities will affect carbon sequestration and flux through this ecosystem, with impacts to global carbon budgets,” Allison Bidlack, an ecologist and director of the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center, part of the University of Alaska Southeast, wrote in her comments to the Forest Service.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com

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