The Trump administration plans to develop an Alaska-specific rule in July that would allow roads in otherwise road-free areas of the country’s largest national forest under a proposal released May 22.
The proposed rule from the Agriculture Department will be designed to accommodate timber harvesting in the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, located in the Alaska panhandle.
According to a listing published in the department’s spring regulatory agenda, the harvesting is needed for forest management and economic development, and to honor existing legal claims.
While logging did take place in Tongass in previous decades, limitations on building roads were imposed under the 2001 Roadless Rule. The rule prohibited road construction, road repair, and timber harvesting on 58.5 million acres of inventoried areas on National Forest System lands throughout the nation.
Environmentalists argue that roadless areas must be preserved to protect wolves, deer, salmon, and other wildlife that rely on intact forests and watersheds.
But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) opposes the roadless rule in the Tongass, saying it has led to a substantial loss of access for the timber, mining, transportation, tourism, recreation, and renewable energy industries. The rule also resulted in population losses in some communities, as residents have been forced to seek work elsewhere, she has said.
Access for All Americans
Other congressional Republicans also called for changes to the existing roadless rules.
“If it’s a wilderness area or a national park where we’re taking a truly hands-off, management approach, then we don’t need roads in there,” Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, the only forester in Congress, told Bloomberg Environment.
“But if it’s a place where we want to make the forest healthier, where we want to give people access to recreate, then we should have roads,” he said. “This is land that belongs to all Americans. When they don’t have access to it, they get really frustrated.”
Since President Donald Trump took office, states have seen an opportunity to carve out exemptions from the Obama-era roadless rule.
The Agriculture Department is also weighing a petition from Utah requesting that the Forest Service develop a Utah-specific rule for roadless area management.
In its notice, the Agriculture Department also said it wants to maintain the current roadless protection status in Alaska’s other national forest, the Chugach National Forest.
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