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Forest Service fields citizen questions: At meeting on proposed AK Roadless Rule

Daily News Staff Writer

Two representatives from the U.S. Forest Service answered questions from among the approximately 80 people who attended Tuesday night's public information meeting on a proposed Alaska Roadless Rule. The question-and-answer session followed a 40-minute presentation summarizing a draft report on the proposal.

The 585-page report, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Alaska Roadless Rule, was released in October and is in a public comment period until midnight on Dec. 17. The report describes six alternatives to the current 2001 Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest, where 55% of land — 9.2 million acres — is inventoried roadless area protected by the 2001 Roadless Rule.

Alternative 1 would leave the existing roadless protections from the 2001 Roadless Rule in place. Alternative 6 would remove all of the 2001 rule's restrictions and protections from the 9.2 million acres of inventoried roadless areas within the Tongass.

Alternative 6 is the preferred alternative of President Donald Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Perdue oversees the Forest Service, the agency that wrote the Draft EIS. He was appointed secretary of agriculture in 2017.

Some of the meeting attendees said the agriculture secretary's preference for Alternative 6 was inconsistent with prior handlings of the Tongass.

Frequently mentioned on Tuesday were an amendment to the Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan, which was signed in 2016, and the 45-day scoping process for the Alaska Roadless Rule in the fall of 2018.

The Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan amendment, commonly referred to as the 2016 Tongass Forest Plan, outlined several steps to transition from the harvest of old-growth timber in the Tongass to the harvest of young-growth timber during the 10-15 years following its signature, at the behest of then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilseck.

According to the Record of Decision on the 2016 Roadless Plan, the Tongass Advisory Committee was created to "provide recommendations to the Forest Service on ways to accelerate the young-growth [harvesting] transition."

The two Forest Service representatives answering questions at Tuesday's meeting were Deputy Chief Chris French and Region 10 Ecosystem Budget and Planner Chad Van Ormer.

French explained that even without any explicit protection for inventoried roadless areas, those areas would still be protected by other statutes and regulations.

"When you look at the analysis, [when] you look at the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, you'll see that the protections that are in the [Tongass] Forest Plan, [other protections] in our standards and guides [and] our best management practices, those ... are the things that really control those impacts [on the Tongass,]" French said.

"So, because the 2016 Forest Plan remains in effect, and you have the statutory framework that we have to operate within, ... the level of timber harvest remains the same. ... [The timber harvest is] really guided by the Forest Plan."

So "even though it's a roadless rule," he said, "we're not proposing to go build roads, we're not proposing to go cut timber."

Consequently, some audience questions were directed at Agriculture Secretary Perdue, who was appointed to the position by Trump in 2017.

Dan Cannon, the Tongass forest program manager for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, had attended the Forest Service's public information meeting the night before in Juneau.

Cannon asked how well secretary Perdue was briefed on the 2016 plan.

"So, does he know about the Tongass Advisory Committee? Does he know that the plan agreed to not log in roadless areas? Does he know that they actually called for a transition to young-growth [timber harvesting]?"

Cannon continued his question: "And on that last part, why did he select the full exemption after a majority — and Ken Tu from the Forest Service last night said he thinks roughly 90% of the over 140,000 comments were in favor of keeping the Roadless Rule on the Tongass. So why does he select Alternative 6 when Alternative 6 designates 185,000 acres, 165,000 of which are old growth, for sustainable timbering? That doesn't sound like a transition to me."

French replied that Secretary Perdue is "very knowledgeable" about the 2016 plan.

Van Ormen added: "Any of the options that are out there, from Alternative 2 all the way to Alternative 6, we'd keep the Forest Plan intact, the transition would continue, but this would just create more options, more flexibility on where you could go and find that timber to successfully execute the transition that's in the Forest Plan."

Responding to another audience question, French noted that none of the alternatives would have measures in place to prevent lawsuits from interfering with timber harvesting — not as long as “the views on public land management continue to be diverse and polarized,” he said.

Heather Bauscher, the Tongass community organizer for the Sitka Conservation Society, responded to French’s comment.

 “I was really pleased to hear during the scoping that they wanted to come up with something nuanced and unique, you know, that really works for our region,” she said. “And I think a tremendous number of people have put in a ton of time, like yourselves, trying to come up with reasonable, collaborative solutions to this problem.

“So… how did we get back to Alternative 6, which is the extreme opposite end, being chosen, when you just spoke to … the problem of polarization, and all [Alternative 6] does is polarize and divide us more?” Bauscher asked.

French said that Perdue's preference for Alternative 6 was most guided by a January 2018 petition he received from the State of Alaska requesting that the Tongass be exempt from the 2001 Roadless Rule.

"[Perdue] thought that Alternative 6, the exemption, was most responsive to the petition that we received from the state and the issues that were associated with that," French said, later adding, "all I can say is that he was well-informed of all of the pieces of this, and that is the direction that [the Forest Service received]."

The state's petition, written just over a year after the preferred alternative amendment for the 2016 Tongass Forest Plan was selected and signed, also requested "a new amendment or revision process" to the Tongass Forest Plan to "reconsider all of the objections in the State's objection letter" for the Final EIS for the 2016 Tongass Forest Plan amendment.

In answering another question, French said forest plans are "supposed to be looked at and revised every 10-15 years."

Also at Tuesday's meeting, Bauscher expressed concern that the Forest Service would ignore public comments when designating the preferred alternative for the Final Environmental Impact Statement. Even with 140,000 public comments made during the scoping period, with the vast majority in favor of Alternative 1, she said, the secretary still indicated his preference for Alternative 6.

"Most of the time if something is selected as the preferred alternative in the EIS that doesn't change, so what's the hope or chance that any other possible alternative is what we end up with?" she asked.

French explained that the preferred alternative has changed from Draft EIS to Final EIS in the past — specifically, with the 2001 Roadless Rule.

The Draft EIS for the national Roadless Rule, released in 1999, prohibited road construction and reconstruction in inventoried roadless areas. The Final EIS, released the same year, prohibited timber harvesting, in addition to road construction and reconstruction, according to the U.S. District Court opinion on the State of Alaska's lawsuit against the USDA.

French said Perdue decided to "create and look at ... [alternatives] that [were] well-informed, that looked at the nuances, and his intention there was to look at this whole range."

He further explained that the comments made during the scoping process were used to develop alternatives 2 through 5.

French said that hearing the concerns and comments of community members was important to the Forest Service. He said the agency will carefully consider what it hears from citizens, and encouraged attendees to make comments on the Draft EIS.

The public comment process for the proposed Alaska Roadless Rule is open through Dec. 17. Materials related to the proposed rule can be found on the Forest Service website using the links below.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement can be found at https://bit.ly/2qdpwbH, and public comments can be made at https://bit.ly/2NuP1xh.

Other public meetings to discuss the proposed Alaska Roadless Rule will be held across Southeast Alaska through Nov. 13. A full list of meeting times and locations can be found at https://bit.ly/36rZRwX.