KAKE, Alaska — To the 569 residents of this island community in the Tongass National Forest, picking blueberries may offer more promise in the long run than harvesting trees.
So when the Department of Agriculture announced last year that it would consider scrapping rules that protect stands of old-growth forest, they demanded meetings with the agency.
"We said we wanted to be consulted," said Mike Jackson, a leader with the Organized Village of Kake (OVK), in the tribal offices adorned with Native carvings and paintings. The OVK is a federally recognized tribe and has lived here, 100 miles southeast of Juneau, for generations. The Alaska Natives have seen the forests cut over in decades past.
"This is a huge decision to be making," he said. "They're just rolling with it."
The tension between the Organized Village of Kake and USDA is part of a broader negative reaction in southeast Alaska to the department's proposal to rewrite rules that protect roadless areas of the Tongass from timber harvest.
The proposal — pushed by the state and supported by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and President Trump — would exempt Alaska from the nationwide Roadless Area Conservation Rule, and either lift the restrictions entirely or allow for state-specific regulations more lenient than the national rule that blocks road construction in certain areas.
Kake tribal officials say USDA and the Forest Service, which is part of the department, are pushing the proposal with unprecedented speed and without adequate consultation. Working with tribes is a requirement of historical agreements with Alaska Native groups, and collaboration is an especially sore point because the Kake tribal organization has successfully sued the Forest Service in the past over attempts to lift the roadless rule.
Tribal officials said this week that they'll continue to fight the proposal, despite making little headway with the agency or with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is vocally in favor of a new Alaska-specific rule as a way to balance economic and recreational interests in the 16.9-million-acre Tongass — the nation's largest national forest.
The conflict may heat up in the coming weeks as USDA releases a required report on the possible environmental effects of the proposal. The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing that document, a draft environmental impact statement, and could make it public any day, according to conservation groups that have met with administration officials.
Murkowski, who is in the state during the August congressional recess, continues to promote the proposal as critical not just to the timber industry — which is shrinking in the region — but as important to improving public access to the forest for mineral extraction, hydroelectric production and other economic activity that can help make up for timber's decline.
An Energy Committee spokeswoman didn't have an immediate comment on Murkowski and tribal involvement, but the senator has said she supports access to the public lands and believes the Tongass stands out from other national forests because of its importance to the region's economy.
She's a native of southeast Alaska, with its mix of tribal populations and recreation, as well as timber interests that also had the attention of her predecessor in the Senate seat — her father, Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski.
The senator's position is clear to both sides of the debate.
"She's all for opening it up. That's her spiel to us," said the OVK Tribal Council's president, Joel Jackson, who has exchanged letters recently with Murkowski. "In response, I told her this is our land. We want it to heal."
The tribe holds 14 acres through a trust agreement with the federal government, but it's seen a far wider surrounding area affected by 50 years of heavy logging.
Timber activities affect populations of deer and salmon on which the tribe relies for food and income.
And while timber harvesting hasn't been all negative — clearcut stands have opened up land for thousands of pounds of wild blueberries over the years, Joel Jackson said — tribal members say industrialized logging should be left behind for good.
Instead, tribal officials said, residents are branching out into other economic pursuits, such as the berries, a new fish cannery, medicinal plants, and farming of kelp and seaweed in the waters surrounding the island community. Those businesses, not timber, are the new emphasis among younger residents, tribal officials said.
Joel Jackson said the tribe isn't calling for the forest to remain untouched. Some areas are so thick with young trees that a person can't walk through them, and those should be thinned, he said. But the tribe isn't likely to support transitioning to young-growth timber, either.
Since voicing objections late last year to the roadless exemption, the Kake tribe and Alaska Natives have gained some voice. The Forest Service brought on the Organized Village of Kake as a "cooperating agency" on the roadless rule and held a public scoping hearing on the plans in Kake. The state of Alaska, which petitioned USDA for an exemption to the roadless rule, established a citizens advisory committee and included at least one member from a federally recognized tribe.
But that's not enough for the Organized Village of Kake, officials said. All tribes should be represented, and the other gestures "cannot compensate for the agency's abject failure to consult and collaborate" with the tribe, Jackson said in a letter to the Forest Service during last year's public comment session.
On a recent visit to Washington, tribal officials asked to meet with Secretary Perdue to discuss the roadless rule. The department offered Undersecretary Jim Hubbard instead, and the tribe declined. "We wanted to meet with the main man," Joel Jackson said.
Being left out of discussions on federal policy is a long-term complaint for tribes, and officials said it's frustrating in light of other efforts they're making to coordinate. Some of those moves involve the 2018 farm bill, for instance, where Kake tribal members see opportunities to work with USDA on conservation and rural development programs, said OVK Executive Director Dawn Jackson.
In the meantime, Joel Jackson said, tribal officials are making plans for their next visit to Washington to press points on this and other policies, and to keep their voice in the mix. "Nobody else is going to do this for us. We're the voice of the community."