By Leigh Armstrong 

Mayor Andrew Cremata believes Skagway should go on record in opposition to a U.S. Forest Service proposal that would exempt the Tongass National Forest from 18-year-old restrictions on road construction and logging.

The existing limitation on new logging road construction provides a good balance for preserving the Tongass while still allowing exceptions for community access and economic development projects, the mayor said.

“There’s been a lot of concern from people in town,” Cremata said of the Forest Service’s Oct. 15 draft environmental impact statement (EIS) and preferred option to exempt 9.2 million acres of the Tongass from the 2001 federal roadless rule. The agency’s preferred choice also would open to logging 185,000 acres “previously identified as unsuitable timber lands,” the Forest Service said.

“Conservation of roadless values would be achieved through other means,” such as land-use planning, the agency said in announcing the draft EIS and its preferred option.

The roadless rules applies to more than 58 million acres of national forest land across the country.

The mayor’s resolution in support of maintaining the roadless designation for much of the Tongass and in opposition to the Forest Service push to open more land to logging was scheduled for consideration by the borough assembly as its Oct. 24 meeting.

As drafted, the resolution said the rule “best protects public interests while also protecting the unique ecosystem of the Tongass,” and the municipality supports the option that would make no changes in the limitation.

The resolution cites the benefits to tourism, watersheds, and fish and wildlife habitat as prime reasons to retain the roadless rule.

“Tourism in Skagway, the Inside Passage, and the broader region of Southeast Alaska is dependent on maintaining pristine, wild landscapes of the surrounding coastal temperate rainforest and the iconic wildlife it supports,” the proposed resolution said. “The intent of the Roadless Rule was to protect the social, economic, and ecological values and characteristics of inventoried roadless areas from road construction and reconstruction and certain timber harvest activities.”

The mayor isn’t the only Southeast leader in support of keeping the rule in place. The Craig Tribal Association has publicly voiced its opposition to the Forest Service’s preferred option to lift the restriction. Representatives from several tour companies also want to keep the forest as is.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy had asked the Trump administration to lift the restriction in the Tongass in hopes of rebuilding the region’s timber industry. The Forest Service acknowledged it gave “substantial weight to the state’s policy preferences” in deciding in the draft EIS to recommend total removal of the roadless rule.

The preferred option “is fully responsive to the State of Alaska’s petition,” the agency said.

Cremata this week also referenced a report from Taxpayers for Common Sense, stating that the federal government subsidized logging in the Tongass.

“Over the last 20 fiscal years, the United States Forest Service spent $632 million in connection with its timber sale program in the Tongass and collected $33.8 million in timber sales receipts, resulting in a net loss of $598.2 million in 2018 dollars,” Taxpayers for Common Sense said.

The draft EIS considered six options for the Tongass, ranging from making no change in the rule (Option No. 1) to removing the roadless designation from all lands (Option No. 6) — with four partial changes in the rule and land restrictions in between.

Alaska’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, released a statement Oct. 15 giving her support to the Forest Service decision, thanking 

President Donald Trump, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue “and the team at the Forest Service for their hard work to reach this point.”

In response, Cremata is putting forth a resolution for Skagway to back the first option of taking no action, and opposing removing the roadless designation.

“There’s been a lot of concern from people in town,” Cremata said.

Cremata said there’s already been a good balance in preserving the Tongass  and building, as the 2001 Roadless Rule provides exceptions for community access and economic development projects that serve a legitimate interest.

In addition, Cremata referenced an article form Taxpayers for Common Sense stating the timber industry in the Tongass consistently loses money.

“Over the last 20 fiscal years, the United States Forest Service spent $632 million in connection with its timber sale program in the Tongass and collected $33.8 million in timber sales receipts, resulting in a net loss of $598.2 million in 2018 dollars,” the article from Taxpayers for Common Sense said.

Cremata isn’t the only backer to keeping the Roadless Rule in place for the Tongass. The Craig Tribal Association have publicly voiced their opposition, as well representatives from tour companies who hope to keep the Tongass as is.

Comments on the draft EIS can be submitted online at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=54511, emailed to akroadlessrule@fs.fed.us or mailed to USDA Forest Service, Attn: Alaska Roadless Rule, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau  99802.

The deadline for comments is midnight Dec. 17.