Alaskan Tribal Leaders to Testify Before Congress in Battle to Stop Trump Administration Lifting Logging Restrictions in America's Largest National Forest

On Wednesday, Alaskan tribal leaders, environmentalists and fishermen will testify at a hearing, voicing their concerns over the potential lifting of environmental restrictions in the Tongass National Forest.

Located in the southeast of Alaska, Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S.—covering an area of around 16.7 million acres—and, indeed, one of the largest intact temperate forests in the world.

The hearing on Wednesday—held by the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Land (NPFPL)—revolves around the so-called "Roadless Rule," which was introduced in 2001. Native American groups who live in the area and rely on the forest say its removal could have potentially devastating consequences for their way of life, The Guardian reported.

The rule puts limitations on logging and road construction in vast swathes of forest across the country. However, the logging industry and supportive lawmakers in the state have long sought to overturn the rule to further exploit the forest's vast natural resources for profit.

These efforts have been met by opposition from environmental groups, local Native communities and some politicians, who have largely been successful in blocking these moves, whether in Congress or the courts.

However, in 2018 the state of Alaska petitioned Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to exempt Tongass—which has been described as the "crown jewel" in the U.S. National Forest system—from the 2001 Roadless Rule. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) directed the Forest Service (FS) to begin looking into a "state-specific roadless area management direction for the Tongass."

Subsequently, the agency put together a draft Environmental Impact Statement, examining six possible alternatives ranging from "no action" to the removal of Tongass from the 2001 Roadless Rule, according to the USDA.

As part of this process, the FS provided Alaska with $2 million in federal funds to facilitate engagement with various groups, including state officials, Alaska tribes and native corporations, organizations, and individuals.

Alaska-based news outlet KTOO revealed that around $200,000 was given to the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry lobbying group. Meanwhile, Native tribes—which can trace their presence in the area back thousands of years—say they were not given any financial support during this initial review process, noting that their requests for an extension to examine the extensive documentation involved were repeatedly denied.

Subsequently, the USDA identified Alternative 6—a full exemption to the Roadless Rule—as the preferred course of action with a final decision expected to be made in 2020 after further public consultation.

Earlier this year, The Washington Post reported that that President Donald Trump had intervened in this process during a private meeting with Perdue in June. Trump reportedly directed the Agriculture Secretary to grant a full exemption, citing three sources who were briefed privately on the issue.

This full exemption would open up more than half of Tongass—around 9.2 million acres—to industry and remove restrictions that prevent mass clearcutting of trees in ancient forested areas.

"The draft environmental impact statement for the rule would lay the groundwork for new logging roads in areas that have been off-limits for decades," a statement provided to Newsweek by Earthjustice—a non-profit public interest organization dedicated to litigating environmental issues—read. "This would drastically affect surrounding communities, tourism, and commercial fishing and seafood industries."

Following the announcement by the USDA that a full exemption was the preferred course of action, tribal leaders wrote to Perdue criticizing how the review process had been handled, describing the moves as "the most controversial and potentially destructive assault on our way of life to date."

"We've been here for thousands of years. These are our lands and we depend on the Tongass for food security," Joel Jackson, 63, president of the organized village of Kake, who will testify on Wednesday, told The Guardian. "Tribes everywhere are worried and watching very closely at what they're trying to do in Alaska."

The tribes who live in the forest mainly reside on isolated islands and are increasingly reliant on their traditional diet of salmon, deer, moose, grouse and berries in the face of rising food prices and cuts to local ferry services, which have restricted transport options.

"If we didn't have wild food to eat, we would be starving right now. We are living in virtual poverty because of the systems of government," Wanda Culip, a Tlingit advocate for the Tongass in Hoonah told The Guardian. "The Roadless Rule is just the latest example of how we jump through hoops but get nowhere—there is no due process for indigenous communities. We are nuisance communities standing in the way of industry profits."

Alaskan lawmakers who are proponents of removing the Roadless Rule—such as Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) and Rep. Don Young (R)—argue that the move is necessary to boost economic growth in the region.

"Congressman Young believes an exemption is needed to not only boost the economy of south-east Alaska, but to bolster the long-term health of the Tongass national forest by promoting active resource management," a spokesperson for the Representative, who has been working closely with the Trump administration regarding the matter, told The Guardian.

Tongass National Forest
Tongass National Forest. iStock

Murkowski, meanwhile, previously told The Post that the rule "should never have been applied to our state," noting that it is harming the ability "to develop a sustainable, year-round economy for the Southeast region, where less than one percent of the land is privately held."

"The timber industry has declined precipitously, and it is astonishing that the few remaining mills in our nation's largest national forest have to constantly worry about running out of supply," she said.

However, not only does the Roadless Rule have strong support amongst the public—more than 90 percent of nearly 150,000 comments provided to the FS during the 2018 initial review period supported keeping it in place— but critics say that it does not make sense economically.

The timber industry in Alaska has long been in decline and is currently responsible for less than 1 percent of jobs in the southeast of the state—as of 2017—in comparison to 17 percent for tourism and 8.5 percent for the seafood industry, according to data from the Alaska Southeast Conference.

"Tourism and commercial fishing run this region economically, not timber, which is a pathetically small sector," Lance Preston, 47, a fisherman and board member of the Seafood Producers Cooperative in Sitka, told The Guardian. "The salmon already faces challenges from ocean acidification and warming. A very small minority stands to gain economically by being very irresponsible."

Furthermore, individual exemptions already exist and have been granted on several occasions, Alaskan commercial fisherman Elsa Sebastian wrote for the Juneau Empire.

"The fact is, the Roadless Rule is working for Southeast Alaska," Sebastian said. "Exemptions have been consistently granted when needed for community access, mining, and hydro-electric. And despite Murkoski's eyebrow-raising assertion that 'fishing, forestry, mining and tourism... depend on reasonable access to the Tongass,' the commercial fishing industry and tourism interests have made clear that the Roadless Rule is a positive for their businesses."

"I've captained a troller in Southeast for most of my 20s, so I can say with some authority that fishermen rely on the Tongass for the salmon that spawn in its many rivers and streams," she wrote. "The only 'access' we need is to healthier ecosystems and restoration of the habitats previously impacted by clearcut logging and road-building. Conveniently, that work can be accomplished from the existing 5,000 miles of logging roads in the Tongass."

Aside from the impact on local tribes and the fact that there may be little economic benefit as a result of the Roadless Rule exemption, critics say there could be severe environmental consequences if the forest is opened up to further logging.

For one, the vast forest stores huge amounts of carbon, acting as a buffer against climate change. Meanwhile, development could fragment habitats, with a significant impact on the local wildlife—which includes animals such as Pacific salmon, brown bears, wolves and bald eagles.

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