GATHERING OF CULTURES – Dorothy Gordon holds year-old Marilyn De La Torre as they perform an entrance song Thursday at the B.J McGillis Gym during the annual Gathering of Cultures. A Tlingit dance group made up of several Sitka Tlingit dance groups opened the gathering. Mt. Edgecumbe High School’s student dance groups representing cultural groups from five regions of Alaska also performed. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

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Daily Sitka Sentinel

USFS Commenters Favor Roadless Rule

By GARLAND KENNEDY
Sentinel Staff Writer

After months of hearings, analyses, and meetings, the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday released an official summary of public comments in the rulemaking process that would exempt the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule.

All told, 96% of the 267,000 letters and comments received were in favor of keeping the Roadless Rule in place in the Tongass, and one percent supported exempting it from the rule, the summary report said.

Comments were accepted from around the nation. For reference, the population of Southeast Alaska as of the 2010 census was just short of 70,000.

“This is now a litmus test to the state of our democracy,” Sitka Conservation Society Director Andrew Thoms said in an interview today.

“We will see if the government makes decisions guided by the people or if we have descended to the level of corruption that would be a tragedy for what Americans expect from their country and their government,” he said.

The Roadless Rule, in place since 2001, prohibits road building activities in 9.4 million acres of the 16.9 million-acre Tongass National Forest. Project exemptions are possible under the rule.

While the summarized comments provided in the Forest Service’s analysis touched on a wide variety of topics from ecological justice to the value of old-growth forests, some themes remained constant.

Linda Waller and other demonstrators in favor of the Forest Service’s Tongass Roadless Rule hold signs at the roundabout during a protest on February 22, 2019. Comments gathered at Forest Service public meetings on the topic were released Tuesday. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

The present USFS rulemaking process for the Tongass began in 2018, at the invitation of Gov. Bill Walker. The state appointed an advisory panel to consider a number of management options ranging from “no action” to full exemption. The panel came out in favor of an Alaska-specific plan that would open formerly roadless areas to some development. But following that process the U.S. Department of Agriculture bypassed that recommendation and instead announced that its preferred alternative was full exemption.

The alternatives put out for public comment ranged from Option 1, “no action,” or keeping the rule in place, to Option 6, the full exemption. Options 2 through 5 were for management plans between those limits.

The USFS summary of comments received said:

“Commenters listed benefits that old-growth forests provide and consider them to be essential for the survival and viability of the ecosystem in the region. Commenters described the rarity of old-growth habitats, which make it a critically-valuable resource to keep protected as an intact forest. Commenters sought information on plans to restore or maintain the diversity of ecosystems and habitat types within the planning area including large-tree old-growth and old-growth cedar stands.”

The impact of commercial timber harvest on fisheries also was a concern.

“Commenters referred to pristine fish habitat serving as important breeding grounds for numerous fish species. Commenters expressed concerns that these are some of the last spawning grounds for especially important species,” the report said.

The future of the planet’s climate also featured in public comments as a major concern revolving around the clear-cutting of old-growth timber.

“Commenters said old-growth forests sequester considerable amounts of carbon, significantly more than young-growth forests. Additionally, commenters expressed concern logging old-growth forests would release substantial carbon reserves in addition to the loss of the carbon sequestration capabilities, contributing to the acceleration of climate change. Commenters state concerns that carbon sequestration capabilities and reserves lost due to logging cannot be recovered on a time scale sufficient for the mitigation demand,” the report stated.

Other topics included the value of the Tongass for tourism, recreation, and health. Others expressed a desire that timber companies be made to pay for logging road construction, which is currently funded by the Forest Service.

Of the public comments which supported the full exemption from the Roadless Rule, themes of economic well-being and power generation were common.

“Themes for support of Alternative 6 included socioeconomic considerations, improved fire response, reduction in restrictions inhibiting the timber industry, local decision making, existence of sufficient protections without the rule, reduced project costs for renewable energy and utility lines, elimination of regulatory uncertainty for permitted hydropower or intertie development, land use management, access, and development,” the Forest Service stated.

An adjacent USFS report, also made public this week, detailed the comments received from 196 individuals testifying in 18 Southeast Alaska communities about the subsistence issues raised by the Tongass management debate.

The subsistence hearings were held in connection with Forest Service informational meetings on the Roadless Rule that were held in communities around Southeast in 2019. Public comment was accepted only on subsistence.

“Those in support of Alternative 1 generally indicated the 2001 Roadless Rule works across Southeast Alaska by preserving roadless area characteristics while supporting economic opportunity for seafood and tourism industries, community socioeconomic well-being, subsistence lifestyles, and Alaska Native culture,” the report read.

The USFS summary said “testifiers also frequently mentioned increasing and competing pressure for subsistence resources, dominance of economic interests over community preferences, skepticism regarding the influence of political pressure, and lack of trust in the Forest Service to manage public lands for current and future generations.”

Of the comments in the subsistence hearing, the report said that about ten supported Alternative 6, the full exemption.

“Those in support of Alternative 6 generally indicated the 2001 Roadless Rule is too restrictive, referenced the multi-use mandate for national forest management, supported additional timber harvest economic opportunity, or indicated a strong preference for less federal regulation, in general.”

Another key theme of the subsistence hearings was a perceived lack of communication between state, federal, and local stakeholders.

“Testifiers consistently indicated Forest Service tribal outreach, engagement, and government-to-government consultation was insufficient throughout the Alaska Roadless Rule project. Some indicated tribal engagement did not honor or comply with the Forest Service’s government-to-government consultation responsibility,”  the report stated.

Those who testified at the subsistence hearings also expressed an “underlying belief subsistence hearing testimony would not be meaningfully considered or accommodated in the development of an Alaska Roadless Rule.”

The Forest Service is set to release the Final Environment Impact Statement in the coming months, with a final decision from the Secretary of Agriculture to follow.

 

 

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AK COVID-19

At a Glance

(updated 9-12-2023)

By Sentinel Staff

The state Department of Health and Social Services has posted the following update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska as of 8:57 a.m. Tuesday, September 12.

New cases as of Tuesday: 278

Total cases (cumulative) statewide – 301,513

Total (cumulative) deaths – 1,485

Case Rate per 100,000 – 38.14

To visit the Alaska DHSS Corona Response dashboard website click here.

COVID in Sitka

The Sitka community level is now "Low.'' Case statistics are as of Tuesday.

Case Rate/100,000 – 152.50

Cases in last 7 days – 13

Cumulative Sitka cases – 3,575

Deceased (cumulative) – 10

The local case data are from Alaska DHSS.

 

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20 YEARS AGO

March 2004

Photo caption: Fire engines and ambulances shine in the sun outside the new fire hall Saturday during an open house. Hundreds turned out to look over the $4 million facility, which is twice the size of the building it replaced. It features a state-of-the-art exhaust system and much larger offices and a large training room.


50 YEARS AGO

March 1974

The Sheldon Jackson Museum will have a special showing of replicas of ancient Tlingit hunting weapons. The replicas were made by A. P. Johnson, a Tlingit  culture instructor and metal arts teacher at SJC.

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