States foreshadow legal battle over Trump’s Tongass rule

Originally published in E&E news by Marc Heller on December 17, 2019

Attorneys general in six states urged the Trump administration yesterday to withdraw a proposal to open more of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging, saying it violates several aspects of federal law.

None of the administration’s alternatives that would scale back the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule in the Tongass are lawful, said the officials, representing California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Washington state in a letter to the Forest Service that could telegraph future legal action.

“The undersigned States therefore urge the Forest Service to correct these fundamental legal defects or withdraw the Proposed Rule,” they said.

In their letter, submitted in advance of today’s deadline for public comments on the proposal, the officials criticized the administration for ignoring potential environmental impacts such as effects on carbon sequestration and climate change, and for inadequately consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries.

The proposal, they said, doesn’t rationally explain a change in policy and violates the Administrative Procedure Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.

At issue is the administration’s move to exempt the nearly 17-million-acre Tongass from the roadless rule, which prevents the construction of roads and logging and other activities, although the Forest Service has granted some exceptions. The Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, said its preferred alternative is a total exemption, which would free 9.2 million acres from the rule, although officials say only 185,000 acres would be newly deemed suitable for timber harvesting.

Less-restrictive regulations wouldn’t necessarily generate more timber harvests, the Forest Service has said, but would give forest managers more flexibility in where to cut down trees. That could lead to more cost-effective timber production, officials say. Other economic activity in southeastern Alaska, such as mining and hydropower, could benefit as well through a less-cumbersome approvals process, supporters say.

Alaska officials on both the state and federal level have sought a full exemption, saying the region’s economic reliance on the Tongass makes it different from other national forests. Timber industry groups and economic development agencies support an exemption.

Opposing an exemption are tribal governments, recreation groups and commercial fishing operations that say they worry about impacts on salmon.

Critics cite the forest’s role in sequestering carbon. Researchers with the Geos Institute and the University of Colorado, Denver, said the Forest Service underestimates the amount of carbon stored in old-growth forests, which haven’t been logged.

The carbon stored in Tongass roadless areas may be worth as much as $234 million to $2.2 billion, depending on offset markets and the amount of logging in the next 100 years, said the researchers, Dominick DellaSala of the Geos Institute and Brian Buma, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado.

They noted Sealaska Corp.’s active role in carbon markets, including the sale of more than $100 million in carbon offset credits to help BP PLC offset carbon emissions; Sealaska, an Alaska Native corporation active in timber and other industries in southeastern Alaska, supports a roadless-rule exemption as an economic development measure that could benefit tribal communities.

Other alternatives USDA is considering would exempt portions of the forest or leave the roadless-area protections fully in place. Officials say they’ll make a final decision next June and that public comments — which have been overwhelmingly negative — will be taken into account.

The attorneys general said the Forest Service appears to have abandoned its own earlier justifications for limiting road construction.

“The Service now asserts that a Tongass exemption is justified because roadless area management in Southeast Alaska is controversial, and it is therefore preferable to decide the fate of roadless areas on a case-by-case basis,” they said. “This reasoning ignores that the Service found the opposite in adopting the 2001 Roadless Rule, concluding that national protection for roadless areas was necessary to avoid the cost and litigation of case-by-case decisionmaking.”

Email: mheller@eenews.net

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