Lawsuit Opposes Logging on Tongass

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A lawsuit filed last year in federal court in Alaska seeks to block the former Trump administration from rolling back curbs on logging in the Tongass National Forest. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Juneau in December 2020, was brought by a diverse coalition of environmental groups, indigenous communities, and businesses in southeast Alaska. It claims that lifting the logging restrictions could harm one of the continent’s largest forests.

The coalition includes the Organized Village of Kake, the Hoonah Indian Association, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, and environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Center for Biological Diversity.

The complaint says the U.S. Forest Service failed to conduct an adequate environmental analysis before rolling back the so-called Roadless Rule.

The Roadless Rule prevents logging operations in some areas of the 17 million acre forest. The plaintiffs say the rule is necessary to preserve the ecosystem home to several species of rare flora and fauna and preserving the way of life of indigenous tribes.

“We still walk and travel across this traditional and customary use area, which is vast and surrounds all of our communities to the north, south, east and west,” said Joel Jackson, Tribal President of the Organized Village of Kake. “It’s important that we protect these lands and waters, as we are interconnected with them. Our way of life depends on it.”

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The Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples have lived and used the temperate rainforest encompassed by the Tongass for generations. Allowing the development of logging roads and logging activity could impact their livelihoods, according to the complaint.

The Tongass also is home to a cornucopia of rare animal species — including Alexander archipelago wolves, which exist nowhere else. And roughly 40 percent of the salmon that swim along the West Coast spawn within the Tongass.

“Trump’s reckless plan to clearcut old-growth trees in the Tongass will irreversibly damage our climate, kill wildlife and devastate Southeast Alaska communities,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re in the midst of climate and wildlife extinction crises, and the Tongass is a lifeline for our planet.”

Proponents of the repeal say the Roadless Rule prevents Alaskans from using the state’s natural resources in an economically beneficial way, as logging, mining and other resource extraction industries are effectively shut down.

When Trump announced the decision to repeal the rule, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Gov. Michael Dunleavy and others hailed the move as a boon for the state’s economy.

Not everybody sees the issue as clear cut with the environment on one side and the economy on the other. For instance, fishermen who depend on the area for a steady supply of salmon contend that logging, mining and other such activities will despoil the fishery and make their livelihoods tougher to earn.

“I cannot overstate the importance of inventoried roadless areas to Southeast Alaska’s tourism and recreation economy,” said Hunter McIntosh, president of The Boat Company. “The Roadless Rule ensures these irreplaceable lands will remain protected and continue to draw visitors from throughout the globe.”

Timber provides less than 1 percent of Alaska’s economic output according to recent census figures. Ecotourism accounts for 17 percent.

The Roadless Rule has been a political football spanning back decades and involving several presidential administrations and Alaska federal lawmakers.

President George W. Bush attempted to repeal the Roadless Rule for the Tongass in 2003, but a lawsuit was filed and that repeal was lifted by a court order in 2011.