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The feds and environmental groups agreeing to exempt projects from the Roadless Rule generated no overwhelming sense of relief in Southeast this week.
Nor is relief expected as long as the Tongass National Forest is subject to the rule.
The U.S. government and these groups submitted a settlement proposal to the U.S. District Court, which would exempt particular community projects from the 2001 Roadless Rule — for example, Ketchikan's Whitman Lake Hydroelectric Project. It identified specific projects, but failed to take into account the economic future of the region. The U.S. Forest Service also admitted that most of the projects would have been allowed under the Roadless Rule with or without the proposal.
The Clinton administration imposed the Roadless Rule, prohibiting commercial logging and roadbuilding in roadless areas of national forests. The Bush administration exempted the Tongass National Forest.
The Village of Kake challenged the exemption; the court overturned the exemption this spring.
Judge John Sedwick directed the Forest Service to meet with the plaintiffs (Kake and the environmental groups) to come up with a settlement proposal under the reinstated Roadless Rule. Those environmental groups don't speak for Alaska, Southeast or its communities.
Alaska's congressional delegation, including the lone Democrat Sen. Mark Begich, point out that the proposal fails to make accommodations for commercial logging, a glaring omission in a timber-rich region.
"Alaska's timber industry has suffered its share of setbacks and the last thing it needs is more misguided federal regulation," Begich says. "The Roadless Rule is a bad fit for our state and nothing in this agreement to halt litigation improves conditions for (the timber) industry.
"With lots of demands on the Tongass National Forest, the Forest Service needs greater flexibility to address these issues while crafting a reasonably sized timber sale program that keeps the few existing mills alive and allows for modest growth into second growth markets," he says. "Instead of adding options, the Roadless Rule takes them away."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski echoes Begich's sentiment regarding the timber industry, adding: "Simply put, this proposal does little to safeguard the economy of Southeast Alaska."
The repealed exemption and the proposal place the region in a box, offering clarification regarding only the projects listed as they exist today. They don't consider that the projects will evolve and the region needs space to expand and grow to accommodate the future.
The settlement proposal allows for the Whitman Lake Hydroelectric Project as well as hydro projects at Kake, Blue Lake, Little Port Walter and Swan Lake-Tyee Lake. It fails to address additional hydro projects likely to follow. (Blue Lake and Little Port Walter are near Sitka.)
Within a year of the Swan-Tyee project's completion, it became apparent that Ketchikan couldn't rely on it solely. As fuel oil prices increase toward and beyond $4 a gallon, the community has seen additional demand for electricity. It costs less to heat a home with electricity than oil. This increased electricity demand, along with the electrical-powered new technology in homes and businesses, is increasing the pressure to get the Whitman Lake project done.
But then the power generated at Whitman likely will have to be expanded upon. Plus, the Southeast Hydroelectric Intertie Project eventually will connect all of the region's projects and with the electrical power grid to the Lower 48. This is clean, renewable energy for the nation.
The settlement proposal stipulates the Greens Creek, Bokan Mountain and Niblack Mine exploration drilling would be allowed to continue under current plans. It makes no accommodation for the future of the projects, such as roads necessary for further development.
The proposal permits only non-commercial timber harvest, i.e. wood for personal use, and the removal of dead or blown-down wood. No consideration is given for the timber industry.
While the proposed settlement provides limited protection for a few specific hydroelectric projects, Murkowski points out, "it does nothing for the dozens of hydro projects currently under consideration at FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), let alone the hundreds of potential hydropower sites in the region. It also doesn't take into account the need for roads to build transmission lines to connect these power sources to local communities or make any mention of completing the rest of the Southeast intertie, which Congress approved more than a decade ago."
The proposal also doesn't address the possibility of additional court challenges to the projects listed as well as others envisioned. And, as Begich notes, history in Southeast shows that the environmental groups challenge the economically viable timber sales the Forest Service proposes for the industry.
Begich, Murkowski and Congressman Don Young, an ardent supporter of the timber industry throughout his tenure as Alaska's representative, will be evaluating Alaska's options in regard to addressing the Roadless Rule and the proposal.
The state and Southeast's communities won't oppose the proposal as far as it goes. But it is insufficient; the list of exemptions needs to be expanded to accommodate the region's residents.
Compare the proposal and its effect on Southeast to that of another area of the state. For example, look at Alaska's oil industry. The development of oil results in 90 percent of state revenue, and the amount of oil available for market is declining. The revenue declines with it. If such a proposal were applied to the oil industry, it means that the industry and the state could expect no more than it currently receives and a handful of exploratory drilling projects. It would give no assurance that, if the drilling uncovered new oil supplies, they could be developed. That's hardly incentive for the oil companies to spend their dollars to explore, and it would put Alaska in a critical financial predicament.
That's exactly where the Roadless Rule and the settlement proposal place Southeast — in a financial and economic predicament.
The feds and environmental groups should reconsider their proposal, include language satisfactory to the state, the region, the communities, and look at what language is necessary for the mining, timber and other extractors of Alaska's natural resources to operate profitably. No one enters business to lose.
All the while, Juneau's Southeast Alaska Conservation Council makes like it is concerned for the communities. Its actions don't back up that sentiment, and frankly, no one elected SEACC. Let the communities' elected leaders speak for them.
Nothing short of an expanded settlement proposal or exempting Alaska from the Roadless Rule will do for Southeast.