By Marc Heller, originally published on August 22, 2019 at E&E News
More than 100 people who operate commercial fishing boats in southeast Alaska urged the Trump administration not to ease limits on logging in roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest, saying opening those areas could negatively affect salmon.
In a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen yesterday, the fishing operators asked officials to delay releasing a draft environmental impact statement on the proposed Alaska roadless rule until October, citing the industry’s busy summer season.
“We depend on the forest, we are important stakeholders, and in the summer we are fully engaged in earning a living. If the comment period occurs during the summer months, we will effectively be precluded from participating,” they said.
In addition, they asked for a roadless rule that “prioritizes protecting and sustaining the Southeast salmon resource and its habitat in perpetuity.” That would include phasing out old growth, clear-cut timber practices, they said.
As much as 80% of Alaska’s commercial salmon harvest comes from rivers and streams of the Tongass, according to the letter.
The letter was organized in part by the Sitka Conservation Society.
In an email to Perdue, Christiansen and other agency officials, the group’s executive director, Andrew Thoms, said the letter expands on earlier correspondence sent to the administration and predicted additional comments from people in the fishing industry.
“We expect this letter to continue to achieve more interest, as fishermen become increasingly alarmed with the politicized nature of this process in the face of science, reason, and previous collaborative efforts,” Thoms said.
He added, “We understand that political pressure from Alaska’s elected officials and the White House continues to influence the Alaska Roadless Rulemaking process to the detriment of on-the-ground stakeholders, who have overwhelmingly and repeatedly advocated for keeping the 2001 Roadless Rule on the Tongass.”
Conservationists in Alaska told E&E News they believe the administration’s moves to ease the roadless rule — a national regulation that limits logging, road construction and other activities in certain areas — in Alaska are being driven by state-level politicians and officials in Washington, and run counter to public opinion in and around the Tongass.
At nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass is the biggest national forest. Around 9.2 million acres are in roadless areas.
Advocates for an Alaska-specific rule, including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), say the Tongass is different from other national forests because of the region’s economic dependence on it, particularly from timber. She told E&E News last week that she’d like to see a total exemption offered as one alternative, and that the state never should have been included in the roadless rule, crafted in 2001 (Greenwire, Aug. 19).