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 might have read, will remain so even if exempted from the roadless rule.
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 wilderness 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The result? While much of the United States 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.
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.
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.