By Claire Stremple
KHNS reporter

Neither Skagway nor Haines was on the original U.S. Forest Service list of 17 public meetings to accept comments on the agency’s proposal to open up a couple hundred thousand acres in Southeast Alaska to logging. Responding to local requests, the Forest Service added both communities to the list, drawing more than 60 people to the Skagway meeting.

The Skagway Borough Assembly passed a resolution in October to support upholding the existing roadless rule, which restricts road building and logging in much of the Tongass, and the mayor asked the federal agency to hold a meeting in town to hear from the community.

If the forest is compromised, so is Skagway’s largest industry, Mayor Andrew Cremata said. Clear-cut logging and roads could undermine growth in tourism. “Everything is at stake for Skagway,” the mayor said in an interview.

The Forest Service issued a draft environmental impact statement on Oct. 15, favoring a complete rollback of the 18-year-old roadless-rule provision that protects 9.2 million acres of the Tongass National Forest from development.

“I mean, it’s obvious that our economy is based on tourism. We are one of the highest rated destinations in the world, not just Southeast Alaska, but Skagway,” Cremata said.

Though Forest Services officials told the community there would be no big changes as a result of the rollback in protected acreage, Cremata said he is not convinced. “When I asked them to quantify how they came to reach those conclusions, they didn’t have an answer,” he said.

“If you think that will have minimal impact on the visitor industry, no impact on protected habitat … it’s not an honest answer to the question,” Cremata said.

None of the 60 people at the Nov. 26 meeting at Skagway’s AB Hall spoke up in favor of the agency’s preferred alternative. The municipality officially supports the no-change option to uphold the roadless rule. The Haines Borough Assembly has not taken a position on the issue.

Ken Tu, environmental coordinator for the Forest Service, said the agency chose a full exemption from the roadless rule at the behest of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue.“The Secretary gave deference to the state. Well, local federal elected officials,” Tu said at the meeting in Haines on Dec. 7.

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young support the rollback, as does Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Tu said the findings in the draft EIS take the agency’s 2016 Land and Resource Management Plan into account, calling it a “backstop” that will continue to uphold certain limits on development and logging even if the roadless restriction is eliminated.

Management plans, however, can change, said Frank Sherman, Tongass deputy forest supervisor. But that takes time. “It’s supposed to take four years, but in the last 20 years it’s taken most forests about eight years,” he said. “And in the Tongass, I guarantee you it will take longer.

Jamie Bricker, speaking on behalf of the Skagway Traditional Council at the Nov. 26 hearing, said the Forest Service had a legal obligation to consult tribes before making substantive management changes that would affect their land. “We should have been consulted earlier,” she said.

“Skagway Traditional Council stands united with our neighboring tribes and fellow community members in support of maintaining the roadless rule, which protects over 9 million acres on the Tongass,” Bricker said. The council’s members depend on the Tongass for hunting, fishing, gathering, recreating and maintaining cultural ties to nature.

Even after the meeting, Cremata said he felt the federal government is not listening to the people of Southeast Alaska. That concern was echoed across Lynn Canal by Haines resident Kip Kermoyen, who asked Tu at the Dec. 7 public meeting how he would characterize the 144,000 public comments the agency already had collected.

“They were mostly in favor of the no-action alternative,” Tu said.

Kermoyen wanted to know by what margin.

“About 90 percent,” Tu answered.

Kermoyen was one of only about a dozen people at the hastily scheduled afternoon meeting in Haines.

The Forest Service will take public comment on the proposal to drop the roadless rule through Dec. 17. Comments can be submitted online: https://cara.ecosystem-management. org/Public//CommentInput?Project=54511.

The agency expects Agriculture Secretary Perdue to make a final decision by spring or summer 2020. Conservation groups anticipate litigation if Perdue selects the Forest Service’s preferred option to open up the Tongass.