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The Ketchikan Daily News on Wednesday published a Washington Post wire story about President Donald Trump “instructing” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the federal Roadless Rule.
According to unnamed individuals who — the story said — had been briefed on the issue, Trump had talked with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy about exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule during a June meeting aboard Air Force One. Then, earlier this month, Trump told Perdue to “issue a plan to that effect this fall.”
That a president would intervene personally is big news. As the story correctly states, Alaska’s congressional delegation and many others have for years sought to exempt the Tongass from the federal rule that was first enacted two decades ago during the last hours of the Bill Clinton presidency and that initially barred roadbuilding on about 58 million acres of undeveloped federal land nationwide.
But something was missing from the story.
Absent was the fact that Perdue has been working on a rollback of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass for more that a year — a process originally expected to be complete within the next six months.
On June 1, 2018, Perdue committed to developing an Alaska-specific Roadless Rule that focused on the Tongass. The revision process was requested by the State of Alaska during the governorship of Bill Walker.
On Aug. 30, 2018 — one year ago today — the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was proposing to “develop a durable and long-lasting regulation for the conservation and management of roadless areas on the Tongass National Forest.
“The state-specific roadless rule would establish a land classification system designed to conserve roadless area characteristics on the Tongass National Forest while accommodating timber harvesting and road construction/reconstruction activities that are determined to be needed for forest management, economic development opportunities, and the exercise of valid existing rights or other non-discretionary legal authorities.”
In other words, not a full exemption, but a workable solution.
That announcement of Aug. 30, 2018, signalled the start of an expedited public process for developing a revised rule.
“Secretary Perdue aims to sign a final Alaska Roadless Rule within the next 18 months,” the Aug. 30 announcement stated.
But by May of this year, it was apparent that the timeline had slipped. The Forest Service’s most recent (May 30) statement regarding the topic showed that a final Environmental Impact Statement still was expected in 2020, but didn’t offer a specific timeframe as it had in previous announcements.
In June, Trump and Dunleavy had their conversation on Air Force One.
A draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project that had been expected in June did not materialize. As of Thursday, a DEIS still has not been published.
It’s unclear what actual effect the June conversation between Trump and Dunleavy had on the process, although the process does seem to have slowed, if not ground to a halt.
It’s also unclear what the end result of Trump’s “instruction” to Perdue will be. Clinton’s original Roadless Rule has been the subject of lengthy legal actions and a unilateral exemption of the Tongass by Trump is likely to draw similar legal fireworks.
This reminds us of a view espoused by Rep. Don Young during an August 2018 visit to Ketchikan. Young, a staunch opponent of the application of the Roadless Rule in Alaska, spoke of attempting to gain congressional action to exempt Alaska.
Any action by Perdue would be temporary, capable of being undone by a future administration. Action by Congress would put the exemption into law, with a level of permanence.
“I want it in law so the Roadless Rule does not apply to Alaska,” Young said.
Securing congressional action on this subject is no easy task. If it was simple, Congress could have acted long before now.
It’s still worth the effort, however. A tremendous amount of time, effort, energy and money have been spent on an executive branch decree with no real end in sight. If the process toward an Alaska-specific rule is no longer viable and a lasting solution is possible through Congress, that’s where the focus should be.