A diverse coalition of Alaska Native, tourism industry, and environmental organizations celebrated a decision by a federal district judge in Anchorage on Friday, March 4, which reinstates roadless rule protections for the Tongass National Forest, America’s great temperate rainforest.
The groups had sued the federal government in December 2009 challenging the Bush-era exemption of the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Tongass roadless areas are needed to maintain healthy populations of wolves, bears, goshawks, deer, marten, and five species of Pacific salmon, among other species, and to support jobs in the tourism and fishing industries.
The American public has overwhelmingly supported including the Tongass in the Roadless Rule.
The decision in Organized Village of Kake v. U.S. Department of Agriculture strikes down the 2003, Bush-era decision to "temporarily" exempt the Tongass from the national Roadless Rule, which protects nearly 60 million acres of undeveloped backcountry throughout the national forest system. The court’s decision finds that the Tongass Exemption was illegally adopted and reinstates the Roadless Rule in the Tongass.
“This protects remote backcountry areas all over the Tongass that are critical for tourism, fishing, hunting, customary uses, and for everyone who benefits from intact old growth forests in Southeast Alaska,” said Tom Waldo of Earthjustice, who is co-counsel in the lawsuit along with Natural Resources Defense Council.
“We brought this lawsuit to protect customary and traditional uses from damaging logging proposed by the Bush administration,” said Mike Jackson, Organized Village of Kake. “For Tribal members, these lands are essential sources of food, medicine, clothing, and traditional items for artistic and spiritual use. Our deer hunting and other customary uses of the forest have suffered too much already from past logging,” he added.
The ruling is good news for the thousands of people in Southeast Alaska with jobs in tourism and fishing.
“There are more than 3,200 jobs in Southeast Alaska in recreation and tourism,” said Hunter McIntosh of The Boat Company, which operates a small tour business in the region. “And there are another 3,800 jobs in the seafood industry, which depends critically on salmon spawning streams in the old growth forests of the Tongass.”
While strongly supporting jobs in tourism and fishing, the court’s decision will not cause job losses in the timber industry or other economic sectors. The Forest Service is not currently planning to proceed with any roadless area timber sales, but is in the midst of a transition away from old growth logging in the Tongass. Nevertheless, the decision is extremely important to secure this transition and protect against any future backsliding.
The court’s decision specifically found no support for claims that the Roadless Rule hurt local communities and jobs. The rule allows for new highways and for power lines to connect communities in the region.
"The natural values of these watersheds are essential for the survival of small businesses around Southeast," explained Kent John of the Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association. "Very few folks will pay to go see clearcuts and decaying logging roads. This is a great decision for the local economy."
"Intact areas of the Tongass National Forest are the foundation of our unparalleled Southeast Alaska quality of life and of the fish and wildlife that make this forest a global treasure," explained Lindsey Ketchel of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
Mark Rorick of the Sierra Club's Juneau Group said, “The Bush administration had no business opening up Tongass roadless areas to destructive industrial logging. We are pleased that loophole has been closed for good.”
Carol Cairnes of the Tongass Conservation Society said, "The Tongass is an icon, the last fully functioning national forest ecosystem left, and the only one where wildlife and fish exist in something like the abundance they enjoyed in days gone by. The court’s decision will ensure the protection this ecosystem has always deserved."
"The roadless areas on the Tongass National Forest are critical for providing habitat for wildlife species found only in America's rainforest, and are deserving of strong and permanent protection," said Marc Fink of the Center for Biological Diversity.
“There are so many beneficiaries of this wise decision by the judge, reflected in part by the diverse coalition of organizations that brought the case,” said Defenders of Wildlife Alaska Director Karla Dutton. “As with so many of Alaska's wild places, there is much more to be gained from protecting the Tongass than plundering it.”
The plaintiffs, represented by Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council, include the Organized Village of Kake, Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association, The Boat Company, Sierra Club, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Tongass Conservation Society, Greenpeace, Wrangell Resource Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Cascadia Wildlands.