Southeast again debates Tongass roadless rule

After 20 years, Southeast communities, the state and federal government are still debating whether road building should be banned in most of the Tongass National Forest.

The Department of Agriculture is accepting public comments through Jan. 24 on a proposed rule change to restore roadless protections to much of the Tongass. The nationwide roadless rule was implemented in 2001 under President Bill Clinton; subject to two decades of litigation and political maneuvering that failed to upend the rule in the Tongass; then overturned in late 2020 under President Donald Trump; and now the new administration wants to reverse the Trump-era decision.

The national rule limits road construction — aimed at timber harvesting and other heavy industry and development — in much of the national forest roadless areas around the country.

In the 2020 rule-making process for the Tongass, more than a quarter-million comments were sent to the Department of Agriculture, with more than 95% in support of retaining the roadless rule on more than half of the land, the largest national forest in the country.

“At some point, it’s political bantering, with limited meaning,” Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka said of the ongoing debate and latest round of public comments on another rule-making process.

The borough assembly in the past has taken a position against the roadless rule in the Tongass, and the mayor expects it will be on the assembly’s Jan. 11 agenda to discuss sending in comments on the latest proposal under the Biden administration.

Aside from the limitation on logging and other potential resource development, Prysunka said restoring the roadless rule would make it harder — more expensive and take longer — if Wrangell and its Southeast neighbors want to add an additional hydroelectric power site to supplement electricity from Tyee Lake.

“From the hydro standpoint, I’m against it,” he said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sees it differently. “Restoring the Tongass’ roadless protections supports the advancement of economic, ecologic and cultural sustainability in Southeast Alaska in a manner that is guided by local voices,” he said in a prepared statement Nov. 19. “The proposed rule is considerate of Alaska’s tribal nations, community input, and builds on the region’s economic drivers of tourism and fishing.”

The federal announcement was welcome news for Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake.

“That was good news for us. Of course, we knew it was coming. It took a while to get there … and hopefully people will take time to comment on it,” Jackson said in a phone interview. “It’s very important for Southeast, for our salmon, our tourism, subsistence — our way of life for generations to come.”

In the future, Jackson hopes that co-management between the Forest Service, tribes and rural communities could be used to administer the Tongass.

“Just keeping everything as it is, and also co-management with the communities that live in the Tongass, the smaller villages that depend on going out and hunting and fishing and gathering in these pristine forests. So we have a say in how our areas are used, because in the past the rural areas were where all the logging took place,” Jackson said.

In the previous rule-making process under the Trump administration, Jackson said, the government didn’t meaningfully consult the tribes of Southeast.

“In the past administration there was no consultation,” he said. “They just basically talked at us. It wasn’t meaningful consultation. But after the Biden administration took over, the Forest Service was told that they were going to enter into meaningful consultation with the tribes, which they did. … I wish it would have moved faster.”

The proposed regulation emphasizes the critical importance of the Tongass as a source of food security and community well-being.

“The Tongass supports thriving ecosystems that provide food security, as well as cultural, spiritual, and socio-economic values to the surrounding communities,” the proposed rule says. “What is now known as the Tongass is the traditional homelands of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples, and is essential to the Alaska Native customary and traditional way of life. Their health, well-being, identity and worldview are intertwined with the lands, waters and wildlife of the Tongass.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation have issued statements harshly critical of the Biden administration’s move to restore the roadless rule for the Tongass.

“With today’s news, the federal government in Washington made clear Southeast Alaska is going back to the environmental policy of the 1990s,” Dunleavy said Nov. 19. “Alaskans deserve access to the resources that the Tongass provides — jobs, renewable energy resources and tourism — not a government plan that treats human beings within a working forest like an invasive species.”

However, a longtime leader in the Southeast fishing industry, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association director Linda Behnken, greeted the roadless rule policy change as a positive development for the environment and for the Alaska economy.

“We believe there’s been a broad recognition that a healthy forest is essential to a healthy economy here in Southeast Alaska. … The Tongass plays an essential role in sequestering carbon and providing a global contribution to climate change. But equally important is the role of the Tongass for the local economy, for fisheries, for tourism, for local uses that leave the trees standing and forest healthy for future generations,” Behnken said.

The comment period closes Jan. 24. Comments can be submitted electronically at or by mail to Alaska Roadless Rule, USDA Forest Service, PO Box 21628, Juneau, AK 99802–1628. Comments may be submitted by email to


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