Juneau, AK (November 19, 2021) – Today’s announcement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that it plans to issue a proposed rule to restore protections of the Tongass National Forest (Tongass) is as settling as coming ashore after a long storm at sea. The actions taken today make good on the Biden Administration’s commitment to roll back the Trump Administration’s policy that exempted more than nine million acres of the Tongass under the Roadless Area Conservation Rule of 2001 (Roadless Rule).
“Throughout my life and time as the tribal president of the Organized Village of Kake, the Tongass has been foundational to our Ḵéex' Ḵwáan way of life," said Joel Jackson, President of the Organized Village of Kake. “Communities in Southeast Alaska and beyond have depended on this intact forest since time immemorial. Our Native peoples’ way of life is inextricably linked with these lands and waters. We hunt, gather, fish and harvest our medicines in this pristine forest that our ancestors stewarded for more than 10,000 years. The Tongass can no longer be viewed as stands of timber waiting for harvest; it must be viewed as a cultural and global resource that must be managed for the benefit of its local people, for the long-term productivity of its salmon streams and wildlife habitat, and a global resource that mitigates impacts from climate change.”
The Roadless Rule prohibited road construction, road reconstruction and timber harvests within inventoried roadless areas with certain exceptions. Under the rule, 9.2 million acres or approximately 55% of the Tongass was designated and managed as inventoried roadless areas.
In 2018, the State of Alaska petitioned the USDA to consider exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. This led to the United States Forest Service initiating an evaluation of a state‐specific roadless rule for Alaska, conducting an environmental impact statement on a potential Roadless Rule exemption for the Tongass through a public process, and a final ruling to fully exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule in 2020.
Throughout the public process, Southeast Alaska tribes worked tirelessly to ensure their voices and concerns were heard during the Alaska roadless rulemaking process under the Trump Administration. Tribal governments engaged in consultations, provided testimony at public meetings and subsistence hearings, provided written comments, and participated in multiple planning processes and advisory committees. Southeast Alaska tribes also filed a petition to USDA to create a Traditional Homelands Conservation Rule that protects the traditional and customary uses and areas of Southeast Alaska Indigenous people in the Tongass. Despite these efforts, the Trump Administration moved forward removing federal Roadless Rule protections for the Tongass, leaving our tribal governments disenfranchised once again and our forests vulnerable and open to unchecked road construction, logging, and other large-scale industrial development.
The Tongass, which has been largely regarded as the ‘Lungs of North America’ or ‘America’s Amazon’ plays a significant ecological role in absorbing carbon produced in the U.S. The Tongass is not only our traditional homeland, but also the United States’ largest national forest and last large temperate rainforest in the world. It’s a carbon sink that absorbs up to 40 percent of the total carbon in the air and approximately 8 percent of the pollution produced in the U.S. It also stores more carbon than any other national forest and the United States Geological Survey estimates that if no trees were lost through logging and the land were left unmanaged in the Tongass, its carbon storage could increase by up to 27 percent by the end of the century.
The Biden Administration also renewed their commitment to Federal Trust responsibilities and to engage in meaningful consultation with Southeast Alaska tribes and Alaska Native corporations. They’ve committed to invest in locally-led, sustainable development initiatives under a new “Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy” that supports forest restoration, recreation and resilience, including climate, wildlife habitat and watershed improvements. The proposed rulemaking will not only put an end to large-scale logging of old-growth timber, it will restore protections for the fish and wildlife that depend on a healthy ecosystem with clean waters and old-growth forests, build healthier communities, and preserve our way of life which is deeply intertwined with the lands and waters of Southeast Alaska.
“For Southeast Alaska tribes, one of our highest priorities is to protect the traditional and customary hunting, fishing, and gathering areas within our traditional tribal territory,” said Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, President of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “We must fight for the protection of these lands and waters and the cultural survival of our people for future generations. Our tribal governments have long sought to work cooperatively with the USDA in decisions that affect the traditional lands of our people. It's long overdue for the USDA to meaningfully incorporate tribal perspectives into the management and decision-making processes. Our voices will remain unified and it’s time we look at co-governing to protect our traditional homelands and areas of tribal importance.”
A 60-day public comment period on the proposed rulemaking begins November 23, 2021. All Alaskans and Lower 48 supporters are encouraged to stand with our tribal governments and communities by participating in the USDA’s public comment period. More information on how to provide public comment can be found in USDA's press release.
There has been clear opposition to the Roadless Rule exemption. Southeast Alaska saw a ‘vast majority’ of local residents speak out in favor of keeping the Roadless Rule in place. Nearly a quarter of a million people throughout the country submitted comments objecting to the Trump Administration’s plan before it was finalized. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) also aligned in support of Southeast Alaska tribes' efforts to establish lasting protection for the Tongass by adopting resolutions.