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March 22, 2011

Roadless Protections Reinstated for Tongass National Forest

Tongass-National-Forest
Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

A 12-year Sierra Club campaign to confer roadless protections on Alaska's Tongass National Forest ended in victory this month when a U.S. District Court Judge overturned a 2003 decision by the U.S. Forest Service to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, calling that decision "arbitrary and capricious."

"It certainly was!" says Mark Rorick, chair of the Sierra Club's Juneau Group, which began its campaign for Tongass roadless protections in 1999. "The Tongass exemption was the result of a court settlement between the Bush administration and the State of Alaska and could not stand up to a laugh test."

But it was no laughing matter when the Tongass—at nearly 17 million acres the nation's largest national forest and the largest temperate rainforest on earth—was stripped of the roadless protections conferred on it by the Clinton administration in 2001.

Implementation of the Roadless Rule, which protects nearly 60 million acres of undeveloped backcountry throughout the national forest system, was immediately blocked by the incoming Bush administration. The Sierra Club won a major victory in 2006 when the rule was reinstated, but a circuit court decision exempted the Tongass from its protections.

Tongass-forest-scene
Photo by Henry Hartley

Ultimately, a sustained campaign by the Club and its allies paid off on March 4, 2011, when U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick handed down his ruling reinstating roadless protections for the Tongass. "Many Alaskans fought the fight for many years," says Rorick, "and because of their passion for protecting our wildlands for future generations, we are now celebrating this victory."

The Juneau Group hired its first roadless campaigner, Pat Veesart, in 2000. Veesart and Rorick immediately started going to the Juneau cruise ship docks and asking tourists to sign postcards in support of the Tongass. Two months later they dumped 500 signed cards on the floor of Governor Tony Knowles' office with the media watching. That's Rorick at left below, dropping off a flyer at the governor's house; at right, Patte Rorick gives public testimony at a U.S. Forest Service hearing on the Tongass.

Mark-and-Patte-Rorick

At a series of public hearings held throughout Alaska in 2000 by the Forest Service, 62 percent of the people who spoke favored roadless protections for the Tongass. In Southeast Alaska's four largest cities—Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Petersburg—that figure was nearly 75 percent. Mark Rorick says that overall in Southeast Alaska, three-quarters of those who spoke out in favor of roadless protections were Sierra Club members.

In 2003, after the Tongass was exempted from roadless protections, Sierra Club organizer Betsy Goll spearheaded a drive that gathered more than 2,500 comments supporting its inclusion, including 750 handwritten letters. For the next decade, the Club kept up a steady drumbeat of postcard campaigns, letters-to-the-editor, lobbying efforts, and grassroots actions including testifying at public hearings.

In December 2009 the Sierra Club was part of a broad coalition of environmental, Native, tourism, and citizen groups that sued to challenge the 2003 Tongass exemption. The case culminated in Judge Sedwick's March 4 ruling that the exemption had been adopted illegally.

Tongass-coastal-scene
Photo by Mark Brennan

Stretching for more than 500 miles along Alaska's coast, the Tongass National Forest includes islands, peninsulas, and fjords laced with springs, streams, and rivers that provide critical habitat for a diverse range of wildlife, including wolves, bears, marten, Pacific salmon, and over 300 bird species, including the Mew Gull, pictured below.

Mew-Gull-in-Tongass
Photo by Alan Wilson

The March 4 ruling also supports jobs in the tourism and fishing industries without causing job losses in the timber industry or other economic sectors. Judge Sedwick specifically found no support for claims that the Roadless Rule hurt local economies and jobs, since the rule allows for new highways and power lines to connect communities in the region.

Tongass-wilderness
Photo by Mark Brennan

Some of the Club activists who worked long and hard to protect the Tongass did not live to see the victorious conclusion of the battle—among them Dr. Clifford Dale Lobaugh, below, a founder of the Juneau Group who died in January of this year at age 74.

Cliff-Lobaugh

Lobaugh was the first, and for many years the only veterinarian in Southeast Alaska, and his practice spread into the Yukon Territory and northern British Columbia. In the 1970s, Lobaugh was a leader in efforts to stop the largest timber sale in the nation's history—an 8.5-billion-board-feet sale that would have devastated Admiralty Island and many other forest lands near Juneau.

In addition to Lobaugh, Mark Rorick gives kudos to Alaska Chapter activists Irene Alexakos, Richard Hellard, and Dick Myren—picured below at the 2000 Forest Service hearings—for their dedication on behalf of the Tongass over the last dozen years. (Myron died in November 2009 at the age of 85.)

Alexakos-Hellard-Myren

Read more about the Tongass, the Roadless Rule, and the Alaska Sierra Club.

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