The U.S. Forest Service kicked off a series of public meetings all over Southeast Alaska this week to discuss why it is seeking a full exemption to the Roadless Rule in the Tongass National Forest.
The federal agency explained it didn’t anticipate big changes in the Tongass as a result of the exemption. But some in the crowd weren’t convinced.
The Forest Service’s second in command in D.C., Chris French, faced largely skeptical crowds in Ketchikan. He explained that his boss, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue opted for making the Tongass National Forest fully exempt from the Roadless Rule because that’s been the position of the state of Alaska all along.
“He thought that the exemption was most responsive to the petition that we received from the state,” French said.
Southeast Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council Chairman Donald Hernandez fired back. He says that ignores consultations with subsistence groups, tribes and public comment that have been clear: keep the Roadless Rule in place.
“Basically, the governor — and probably our legislators — wanted a full exemption, so that’s what we got,” Hernandez said.
Others on the council shared concerns that eliminating the rule could mean more logging of old-growth timber stands. That would harm deer habitat and impact subsistence hunting.
Gloria Burns of Ketchikan Indian Community, the federally-recognized tribal government, complained that the tribes aren’t being heard throughout this process.
“I feel as though Washington DC is looking down at me and saying, hey, it’s just going to be this way,” she said.
She testified at the subsistence hearing that the Roadless Rule helps protect the animal and fish habitat from being degraded.
“We all rely on a healthy ecosystem to be able to take care of our needs when it comes to subsistence,” Burns said.
Youth leaders also spoke up in favor of keeping the Roadless Rule in place.
Fifteen-year-old high school student Shania Murphy says the coastal rainforest around Ketchikan is part of her Alaska Native identity.
“And when you log that forest,” she said, “it’s going to be like cutting my arm off — because this place is a part of me.”
Though most of those who asked questions and offered comments were critical of the direction the Forest Service is taking, the Roadless Rule has its local critics too.
Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor Rodney Dial says he hopes relaxing restrictions on logging could help the local economy.
“Initially, we hope that it’s going to support some of the local sawmills and maybe lead to some specialty businesses across Southeast,” Dial said.
His sentiments were among a handful who applauded the federal government looking to roll back the Clinton-era rule. But they were in the minority of those who spoke, as more than a dozen were critical of any change for the Roadless Rule in the Tongass National Forest.
This story has been updated to clarify that the majority of those who spoke at the meetings were critical of a full Roadless Rule exemption for the Tongass.