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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Several tribes and Alaska Natives are applauding the Biden administration’s plans to revive a ban on road-building in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska.

The “roadless rule” had been in place for 20 years until last fall, when federal officials exempted southeast Alaska from the rule three months before then-President Donald Trump’s term ended.

The White House announced President Biden’s move in a notice saying the change was consistent with his Jan. 27 executive order on protection of public health and the environment and the use of science to tackle the climate crisis. The Department of Agriculture expects to publish the proposed rule in August, the notice said.

Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network director Osprey Orielle Lake said old-growth forests serve as essential lungs of the earth.

In a prepared statement, she said Biden’s move is “a vital step forward in remedying Trump-era environmental rollbacks, and we will continue to urge the Biden-Harris Administration to take seriously the role our forests and Indigenous leaders have to play in helping to mitigate the climate crisis.”

Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, a federally recognized tribe on Kupreanof Island in southeast Alaska, welcomed Biden’s reversal. Jackson’s tribe was among 23 entities, including conservationists and fishermen, that filed a lawsuit in October to overturn the Trump administration’s roadless rule exemption.

“As Native people, we are tied to the land. We go shopping in our forests and our waters to get our food, traditional food that we eat mostly. So it’s important that we have the old growth timber,” he told CoastAlaska’s Jacob Resnick.

Mamie Williams, Tlingit, is a Tongass representative with the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network. She’s also a local guide for cruise ship visitors to her hometown, Hoonah, in southeast Alaska.

“Climate change looks different in Alaska,” Williams said, in a prepared statement. “It's like watching your way of life die — from glaciers to salmon to trees suffering because we as human beings forgot our way of taking care of each other and Mother Earth.”

She continued, “When you walk into a forest of old growth, like the Tongass, there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world. The Tongass is home to countless animals and plants we call family, and it is necessary to protect this home for our children and grandchildren.”

Rebekah Sawers, Yup’ik, another Tongass representative with the women’s network, also praised the decision.

“Protecting the Tongass means supporting the growth of local business, ensuring community access to traditional foods and medicines, allowing the forest to heal from massive logging in the past while mitigating further climate chaos,” she said. “It is important that this land stays wild and free.”

— Alaska sues to open logging in Tongass
— 5 Alaska tribes protest groundwork for Tongass logging

In July 2020, nine southeast Alaska tribes filed a petition asking the agriculture department to create a conservation rule for the long-term management and protection of use areas in the Tongass.

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“One of our sovereign tribes’ highest priorities is to protect the traditional and customary hunting, fishing, and gathering areas within our traditional tribal territory,” the tribes said.

Trout Unlimited and Alaska Seaplane Adventures are among several conservation groups and tourism businesses that say the Tongass is important to fisheries along the Pacific coast, and supports a thriving tourism industry.

Biden’s reversal is another move in a decades-long battle over logging in the Tongass.

In 2001, Bill Clinton finalized the so-called “roadless rule,” which barred road construction in 58.5 million acres of national forest. President George W. Bush later allowed a handful of timber sales in the Tongass before a federal judge reinstated the Clinton rule.

The Tongass controversy is part of a larger conflict over development in Alaska. With its vast natural resources and focus on extracting commodities such as oil, timber and metals, Alaska often finds itself at odds with Washington when Democrats control the White House.

Republicans pushed to open up remote wilderness areas in Alaska to drilling, mining and logging while Trump was in office. They promoted projects from southeast to the western Arctic and the Bering Sea. Biden and his deputies have worked to freeze or unravel many of these policies during the last four and-a-half months.

Officials recently suspended drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In April, the Biden administration took the unusual step of postponing the effective date of public lands orders allowing mining on 11 million acres in Alaska for two years.

Sonny Perdue, Trump’s agriculture secretary, sought to forge a compromise that would have protected most of the Tongass’ 9.3 million acres. But he was overruled by Trump, who decided to exempt the entire area after meeting privately with Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy aboard Air Force One during a stopover at Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Alaska’s elected leaders have said the limits on roadbuilding hamper not just logging of the Tongass, but other industrial activities, including mining, in a region that’s taken some economic hits due to the pandemic.

In March, a former governor, two southeastern communities, power companies, chambers of commerce, the Alaska Miners’ Association, and construction businesses, among others, intervened in a lawsuit over the issue.

“The Tongass holds great economic opportunity for not only Southeast Alaska, but the state as a whole,” Dunleavy said. “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.”

In a petition to the agriculture department during the Trump administration, the state wrote that limitations on road building will “have devastating socioeconomic effects on Alaskans.” The state had applauded the agriculture department’s roadless rule exemption under Trump.

“The Trump administration, through the Forest Service and USDA, put considerable work and effort into the final rule and now the Biden administration is literally throwing it all away,” said Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She said she will use “every tool at my disposal to fight back on the administration’s latest action.”

The Forest Service has temporarily halted road building in the Tongass but it will take months for the new proposal to become final. The issue is also still in litigation, so the courts could intervene in the case.

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This article contains material from The Associated Press.