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Twenty-two organizations representing tribal, environmental, fishing and tourism interests are suing the federal government to block a decision that lifts development restrictions in much of Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
They ask a federal judge to reinstate the old restrictions and declare that the federal government violated federal law.
“We are deeply concerned about the protection of the Tongass National Forest, where our ancestors have lived for 10,000 years or more,” said Joel Jackson, tribal president of the Organized Village of Kake, in a prepared statement.
The Native government of Kake, a Southeast Alaska town of about 570 people, is the lead plaintiff. It is being represented by two national environmental law firms, the Natural Resources Defense Council and EarthJustice.
State governments in Alaska have long supported efforts to eliminate the so-called “Roadless Rule,” with several governors saying that it restricts the ability of private firms to cut timber and build mines, dams, power lines and roads in the region.
The rule was imposed during the administration of President Bill Clinton and has been the subject of litigation for decades as the state and industry groups sought to overturn it. After those efforts were unsuccessful, former Alaska Gov. Bill Walker asked President Donald Trump’s administration to write a new rule exempting the Tongass forest from the Roadless Rule, and that work continued under Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
At about 17 million acres, the Tongass is the nation’s largest national forest and the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world.
Lee Wallace, president of the Organized Village of Saxman, said in a written statement that “the process used to create the Roadless Rule exemption was flawed.”
Listing the arguments made in the lawsuit, he said, “The USDA ignored its trust responsibilities to tribes, failed to engage in meaningful consultation, ignored widespread opposition to the exemption, and favored the state of Alaska with $2 million in unlawful payments. This lawsuit is necessary to protect Tlingit and Haida peoples’ way of life and resources — not just for today but for future generations.”
Forest Service investigators said last week that the federal agency improperly allowed the state of Alaska to spend a $2 million federal grant on efforts to overturn the Roadless Rule.
Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said her organization is supporting the lawsuit because the national forest “is Southeast Alaska’s SeaBank, providing annual dividends in fish, wildlife and recreation,” among other benefits.
Two small cruise lines, The Boat Company and UnCruise, are supporting the lawsuit.
“We depend on the ability to market and provide unique recreation experiences, and our clients expect to see ‘wild’ Alaska and prefer intact natural landscapes,” said Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise, in a written statement. “Clearcutting and timber road construction would force us to divert our travel routes to avoid seeing or being around clearcuts.”
Neither the federal government nor the state of Alaska have filed formal replies to the lawsuit.
The case has been referred to Judge Hezekiah Russel Holland, a senior judge for the District of Alaska.