The Obama administration and Alaska are at loggerheads over which mining, hydroelectric and timber projects should be allowed after roadless protections return to the nation's largest national forest.
The Forest Service and Alaska's attorney general yesterday filed separate proposals to a federal judge in Anchorage who in March reinstated a 2001 roadless rule barring most logging and road construction in the Tongass National Forest (E&ENews PM, March 7).
U.S. Judge John Sedwick ruled that the George W. Bush administration had illegally exempted the southeast Alaska forest from the Clinton administration rule, but ordered participants in the case to propose the terms of a final judgment.
While the parties agreed on most of the 20 or so projects that should be allowed to move forward -- including a rare earth mineral project, small-scale hydropower projects, a highway extension and an aerial rainforest tram -- Alaska Attorney General John Burns argued the Forest Service should also allow additional mining projects and timber sales it had authorized prior to the March ruling.
"This proposed judgment fully and fairly addresses the violations found by the court while more fully recognizing important equitable considerations," he wrote in a filing to the court.
Burns added that more explicit language is needed to clarify that additional projects not included on the Forest Service's list should not be disqualified from future consideration.
The proposed judgment from the Forest Service and environmental groups would allow more than a dozen hydroelectric projects, power line interties and mining projects, as well as the removal of timber for personal use or from already dead and downed trees.
"The Forest Service believes the proposed judgment will provide reassurance to local communities that a number of projects that are important to the economic vitality of Southeast Alaska can proceed under the 2001 rule," U.S. Regional Forester Beth Pendleton said in a statement.
The Forest Service proposal is backed by the Village of Kake and several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
“We’re dedicated to seeing salmon-safe hydro and intertie projects happen,” said Lindsey Ketchel, executive director for SEACC. “This proposed judgment outlines a path forward for these community projects and shows that the Forest Service and the plaintiff groups can work together toward policies are responsive to community needs.”
But the U.S. proposal drew a sharp rebuke from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who warned in March that the court's ruling could make it more difficult for the few remaining timber operations that depend on the Tongass to survive.
"While the proposed settlement language provides limited protection for a few specific hydroelectric projects, it does nothing for dozens of hydro projects under consideration at [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission], let alone the hundreds of potential hydropower sites in the region," Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said. "It also doesn't take into account the need for roads to build transmission lines to connect these power sources to local communities or the other economic needs of local residents. Simply put, this proposal does little to safeguard the economy of southeast Alaska."
The court's March ruling was a win for environmentalists, who opposed the Bush administration's 2003 decision to exclude the Tongass from the Clinton roadless rule that covered 58 million acres of federal forests.
Sedwick found the Forest Service's reasoning for exempting Tongass from the roadless rule was "implausible, contrary to evidence in the record" and at odds with previous rulings by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The government had argued, among other things, that the roadless rule could lead to the loss of 800 jobs and place limits on the ability of communities in southeast Alaska on getting access to roads and utilities.