Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska — The state of Alaska and several other groups have filed suit to defend an exemption for the nation’s largest national forest from a 2001 rule that limits development on federal land.

“The Tongass holds great economic opportunity for not only Southeast Alaska, but the state as a whole,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a statement, as reported by the Alaska Public Media Energy Desk last week.

“From resuming our timber industry to attracting tourism, this region has the potential to create good-paying jobs and it is my administration’s intent to defend our state’s rights and improve access to public lands,” Dunleavy said.

The state is opposing a lawsuit filed in October by a coalition of tribal, conservation and business organizations to fight the Tongass’s exemption from the so-called “roadless rule.” The rule limits road construction and timber harvesting on national forest system lands. The Trump administration had issued the Tongass exemption in September 2020.

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The tribal and conservation groups said in their lawsuit that the Trump administration’s decision to lift the rule on more than 9 million acres (about 36,400 square kilometers) of the Tongass is based on a flawed environmental analysis and ignores the input of Alaska Native tribes and the rest of the public.

President Joel Jackson, Tlingit, from the Organized Village of Kake said he is concerned that development could hurt the region’s other industries.

“Our region, before COVID, was heavily reliant on tourism, and sport fishing, and commercial fishing and subsistence fishing — and it still is,” Jackson said. “Those areas provide way more jobs and more economic value to southeast Alaska [than logging would].”

Jackson said development is also a threat to Alaska Natives and their lifestyle, because they harvest food and medicine from the local environment.

At issue are the traditional homelands of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people, whose ways of life and cultures are threatened by logging, according to the court complaint in Organized Village of Kake, et al, v. Sonny Perdue as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, et al.Kashudoha

Wanda Loescher Culp, is a Tlingit activist and Tongass coordinator for the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network.

"The Tongass Forest is my home, home to the ancient Tlingit and Haida Indigenous Nations,” Culp said in a December statement. “It is where my ancestry originates, my bloodline is Indigenous to this land, its DNA is my DNA. The air we breathe, the water we depend on, the land we live upon, all pristine. It is a life to cherish. It is a way of living worth fighting for.”

She said repeal of the roadless rule would lead to destruction of Native homelands and communities who “depend upon the abundance of the forest. This is an attack on our peoples and the climate,” Culp said.

Ketchikan’s city and borough have defended the exemption. Ketchikan city mayor Bob Sivertsen said development does not have to harm the environment.

“Well, there are mitigations for everything we do,” Sivertsen said. “We have the technology these days to do construction and other things that would lessen the impact on environmental issues, whether we’ve got to put in fish culverts, silt fences, the design and placement of the roads, all those types of things.”

Other groups defending the exemption include the city of Craig, the statewide and southeast chambers of commerce, electric utilities, shipping companies and resource development advocacy groups, the Energy Desk reported.

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Indian Country Today National Correspondent Joaqlin Estus contributed to this story.