The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly on Tuesday narrowly voted to commit resources to an ongoing lawsuit to keep the Tongass National Forest exempt from the 2001 federal Roadless Rule, a move that will put the borough at odds with local Alaska Native entities that are opposing the exemption.
The December case, filed by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Organized Village of Saxman, Ketchikan Indian Community and 19 other entities, alleges that federal agencies failed to follow procedures required by the Alaska National Interests Land Conservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Borough Attorney Glenn Brown during the meeting described the December case as another instance of litigation over the Roadless Rule and the Tongass National Forest, using the term “procedural swashbuckling” to characterize the ongoing legal disputes over the land.
The Assembly voted 4-3 to authorize the borough manager to pay $5,000 to Attorney James Clark III and to provide an affidavit from a borough official “explaining how the Borough’s interests are injured by the Roadless Rule,” as described by the meeting agenda.
Assembly Member Jeremy Bynum said a Tongass exemption from the Roadless Rule would better allow for potential resource exploration and development in the region, and could allow for expanded hydroelectric power development for Southeast Alaska communities, noting that protections for the Tongass still would exist even with an exemption.
“Something that the exemption doesn’t do is it doesn’t forego all the environmental impact studies, the reviews, rulemaking that has to be done. There’s also still a Forest Plan in place that … regulates what we can do in the Tongass, and how we can do in the Tongass,” Bynum said.
“I know that the $5,000 is a really small amount of money, but what it represents is something much more important, and that’s our ability to do what’s best for Ketchikan, [the] borough and Southeast Alaska.”
Assembly Member Judith McQuerry voted against the measure after considering that the Organized Village of Saxman and KIC, whose members represent a “considerable portion” of the community, stand opposed to the stance the borough would be taking.
Assembly members Felix Wong and Austin Otos joined McQuerry’s opposition to the measure. Otos has opposed previous borough actions that advocated for curbing the application of the federal Roadless Rule to the Tongass National Forest.
After approving the Roadless Rule action, the Assembly entered a work session on sales tax projections for the borough with an eye toward the budget for the upcoming 2022 fiscal year, which begins on July 1. The work session did not yield any motions or proposed actions from Assembly members.
The Assembly finally considered a joint resolution urging the federal government to fix problems that, if not addressed, would kill any hope of a normal cruise season for Southeast Alaska communities.
The resolution, which was adopted by the Saxman City Council at its Feb. 9 meeting, asks that the federal government allow foreign-flagged cruise ships to visit Alaska without stopping in Canada, and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention give direction for how cruise ships could safely continue sailings.
Earlier this month, the Canadian government extended a ban on large cruise ship operations in Canadian waters through February of 2022, including the mostly foreign-flagged cruise ships that serve Southeast Alaska communities. Under the federal Passenger Vessel Services Act, foreign-flagged ships must make a stop at a foreign port when traveling between two American ports.
The Assembly unanimously approved the joint resolution. The Ketchikan City Council will consider the joint resolution at its regular meeting Thursday.