Media memo: Key background about the legislative attack on the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule

Nov 21, 2017

Tongass National Forest, Alaska

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A serious congressional attack on the "Roadless Rule" threatens America's national forests including Alaska's Tongass National Forest

TO:            Editorial Writers, Reporters and Columnists                           

FROM:    The Wilderness Society  

RE:           Legislative Attack on the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule

DATE:      November 21, 2017 

For the past 16 years, national forest roadless areas – lands with no roads, mining, industry or other development – have been protected by the US Forest Service’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

With more than 240 million people living within 100 miles of a national forest or national grassland, the benefits of protecting national forest roadless areas are significant. US national forests serve as the source of drinking water for more than 60 million Americans and their roadless areas contain all or portions of 354 municipal watersheds. Roadless forests offer abundant opportunities for spectacular outdoor recreation, including hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, and backcountry skiing. In addition, roadless areas nationwide provide important habitat for fish and wildlife in our national forests, including more than 2,100 threatened, endangered, or sensitive animal and plant species.

Senate Interior Appropriations Bill Undermines 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule –

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s addition of Sections 508 and 509 to the 2018 Senate Interior Appropriations bill would exempt Alaska’s two national forests, the Tongass National Forest -- the gem of southeastern Alaska and our nation’s largest national forest -- and the spectacular Chugach National Forest near Anchorage, from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule.  Together, these appropriations riders would remove the Roadless Rule’s protections from nearly 15 million acres of Alaskan roadless areas, 9.5 million acres in the Tongass and 5.4 million acres in the Chugach.  That’s nearly one-quarter of all national forest roadless land in the entire U.S.

This is an outrageous and unprecedented political assault on a landmark conservation policy achievement. While there have been numerous legal attacks from powerful logging and energy industries and by the Bush administration, this is the first far-reaching attempt in Congress to undermine the Roadless Rule.  An Alaska exemption from the Roadless Rule is being tucked into an appropriations rider because the senator knows it could never fly on its own. This procedural sleight of hand is also an affront to US taxpayers who would be footing the bill for unnecessary road building and subsidized logging.  

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule - a common sense and durable conservation law

Hailed as one of the smartest and most successful conservation measures in recent history, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule of 2001 protected 58.5 million acres of America’s roadless national forests. Undertaken by the US Forest Service in 1999, its development was supported by many diverse stakeholders and involved one of the most extensive public participation undertakings in the history of federal rulemaking. More than 1.6 million people commented during the rulemaking process, with 95% supporting strong roadless area protection.  The rule has withstood numerous legal challenges in the past 16 years since its adoption, including landmark decisions upholding the rule in both the 9th and 10th circuit courts of appeals.  The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to overturn those decisions.  

The Tongass National Forest’s worth cannot be measured in board feet –

The Tongass National Forest is not only our largest national forest but also contains one of the largest remaining tracts of old-growth temperate rainforests in the world. 

In 2015, recognizing the genuine value of the forest, the Tongass Advisory Committee (TAC), whose members represent a broad array of communities and interests—including tribes, state and local government representatives, and timber industry representatives—unanimously supported protecting roadless areas from logging.

Senator Murkowski’s gift to the timber companies through Sections 508 and 509 of the Senate Interior Appropriations Act would run counter to what is best for the Tongass and the communities of Southeast Alaska. It would threaten the abundant wildlife and beautiful scenery essential to tourism in Southeast Alaska, an industry that contributes more than $1 billion to the region each year and accounts for 15 percent of the region’s employment. It would also endanger the region’s commercial fishing industry that employees 4,300 people (9% of regional employment) and relies on the Tongass National Forest for 80% of its salmon harvest. By contrast, timber accounts for only 1% of the region’s jobs.

False Argument –

Inferring that the Roadless Rule bans logging on the Tongass National Forest is disingenuous at best. There are already 5,000 miles of permanent roads in the Tongass, and more than five billion board feet of timber is potentially available from the existing road network.  Indeed, the architects of the Roadless Rule provided special allowance for the Tongass to provide a smoother transition for local communities by allowing already planned timber sales to proceed.

It is also flawed reasoning to imply a need to build logging roads in the Tongass roadless areas or those of any other national forest.   Roadless areas are simply not a significant potential source of U.S. timber. Only 4% of the U.S. timber supply comes from public lands, and only 6% of that could potentially come from roadless areas – less than ¼ of 1 percent of U.S. timber supply.  Any logging of roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest would be grossly uneconomical, as the Tongass typically makes less than a dime for every taxpayer dollar spent on timber sales.

A Slippery Slope –

Since the Roadless Rule became law, it has saved millions of taxpayer dollars a year by reducing federal subsidies for logging roads, especially in the Tongass National Forest, where road construction costs are roughly $160,000/mile, with peak costs at $500,000/mile because of the nature of the terrain and materials available. (These figures are based on 2012 costs.)

One of the fundamental strengths of the Roadless Rule is its practical exemptions for some new road connections between communities, personal use-tree cutting, hard rock mining projects, off-road vehicle use, construction of utility lines, and hydropower development.  But the last thing the Forest Service needs to do is to start building controversial and needlessly expensive new logging roads into remote roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest or anywhere else.  

Ultimately this attack on one state’s roadless areas is an attack on all of America’s national forest roadless areas.  If a senator succeeded in eliminating the Roadless Rule’s protections in Alaska, it would set a terrible precedent for forest-by-forest or state-by-state exemptions from this national policy.  A legislative exemption of the Tongass and Chugach national forests, slipped into a massive appropriations bill, would strike a terrible blow to the ecological security of roadless areas everywhere. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION: To speak with The Wilderness Society about this threat to the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule and the values of our wild forests, please contact Mike Anderson, Senior Policy Analyst, mike_anderson@tws.org, (206) 890-3529