By Melinda Munson

The Municipality of Skagway and Skagway Traditional Council (STC) expressed disappointment when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Oct. 28 that the Tongass National Forest would be exempt from the 2001 Roadless Rule which prohibited timber harvests and road construction.

The decision will open up for development — though not require — more than half of one of the world’s largest temperate rainforest, which traps massive amounts of carbon and is a haven of biodiversity.

The debate over road building, logging and restrictions of both has endured for decades in Southeast Alaska.

According to the Anchorage Daily News, 96% of comments received during the federal environmental impact statement review opposed changes to the roadless protections. Nine Southeast Alaska tribes withdrew from talks Oct. 13 after the Forest Service made public its plan for opening more of the Tongass to development.

“What is the point of gathering community input across Southeast Alaska when the input is summarily ignored? Representatives that fail to acknowledge the input and will of their constituency are not doing the job of representation,” said Mayor Andrew Cremata. 

On Nov. 5, the assembly voted five to one, with Assemblymember Sam Bass dissenting, for Cremata to send a letter to the Forest Service reiterating the municipality’s objection to the exemption from the national rule limiting road construction in national forests. 

“Skagway’s future depends on the vitality and resplendent natural beauty of the Tongass National Forest. As one of the most visited and highly rated cruise ship destinations in the world, our economy hinges on maintaining the pristine beauty of Southeast Alaska’s primeval landscape,” the letter stated. 

The correspondence was accompanied by Resolution 19-32R, adopted on Oct. 24, 2019, voicing the municipality’s support for maintaining all protections under the 2001 provision.

During the comment period, STC president Jaime Bricker also sent a letter to the Forest Service. 

She noted that, “The Tongass National Forest has been home to our Native people since time immemorial.”

“We are concerned that the environmental impact statement inaccurately implies that there would be minimal adverse effects on land and water habitats and biological diversity. The number of animals whose habitats could be destroyed by logging and road development is innumerable. Our members hunt goat, bear and deer, fish for salmon, halibut and eulachon and forage for berries, mushrooms, devil’s club and birch bark. These delicate ecosystems could be negatively impacted by lifting the Roadless Rule and possibly exposing them to construction and development.”

According to Bricker, STC, a sovereign tribal government, was not consulted by the Forest Service regarding the new rules.

The environmental impact statement that led to the Forest Service decision to lift the roadless rule in the Tongass said the changes “can be made without major adverse impacts to the recreation, tourism, and fishing industries, while providing benefits to the timber and mining industries, increasing opportunities for community infrastructure, and eliminating unnecessary regulations.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy supports the exemption, as do U.S. Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski and U.S. Rep. Don Young.

“A full exemption from the Roadless Rule is about access — access to recreation, renewable energy and more. This puts us on track for a Record of Decision and final rule by the end of the year, in turn opening the door for individuals and communities throughout Southeast to build a more sustainable economy while still ensuring good stewardship of our lands and waters,” Murkowski said.

Bass said he believed shedding the roadless rules would allow for greater “self-determination.”

Separate from logging, proponents of removing the roadless rule from the Tongass have long advocated that it could allow for new hydroelectric projects or other developments. Supporters of the restriction have argued it is needed to protect fish and wildlife habitat, in addition to encouraging more tourism.

“It’s not over yet,” Cremata vowed. “We need to continue to show our support. We all know that we need commerce in Alaska but we don’t need commerce that’s going to have a devastating impact on the cruise ship industry.”