In the possibly least surprising news ever in our world, the Alaska Roadless Rule has been reinstated. Because Roadless geekhood is part of my lived experience, and because we can’t really expect reporters to understand the ins and outs of Roadless, I’ll take a stab at explaining it in some detail, because I think some interesting points were missed in the news coverage I saw.
First, a question for our legal TSW folks:
If a District Ranger said specifically what she wanted to do, in say the details of a NEPA project, and announced it in advance, that would be considered “pre-decisional” and we were told that was not a good thing to do; not sure if it’s actually illegal or just bad NEPA practice, or doesn’t build trust with the public.
However, the President said very clearly that he wanted to reinstall the Alaska Roadless Rule specifically. So that seems pre-decisional also..unless Presidents don’t follow the same rules. But his (in this case) ideas are carried out via the regulatory process. So is pre-decisional only an issue for projects and not regs?
First, they made a new decision from the old EIS, which is great for not making FS employees and others do more work when the ultimate outcome was known. So kudos to the Admin for that!
Why Did it Take So Long?
Looking at their project site, it looks like they did an ANPR on November 23, 2021. I couldn’t find the reading room for the ANPR comments, so I don’t know how many they had.
Now, you might say, this is 2023, why did it take so long? I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who knows the answer. There were a set of other decisions announced at the same time, and I heard much pressure from ENGOs recently, so maybe they were saving it for an opportune time.
Anyway, here’s the link to the Final Rule.
Which Alternative was the Environmentally Preferred and Why?
What interested me was Alternative 2, which according to the summary in the text:
Alternative 2 provided limited additional timber harvest opportunities in comparison to Alternative 1 by removing protections from certain areas designated as roadless in 2001 while maximizing protection for unroaded
areas by adding other Roadless Area designations. It removed from roadless designation approximately 142,000 acres that were substantially altered by road construction or timber harvest conducted during periods when the Tongass National Forest was exempted from the 2001 Roadless Rule.
Alternative 2 also would have added 110,000 acres of unroaded lands as Alaska Roadless Areas that were not designated by the 2001 Rule, and by extension, remained undesignated in Alternative 1 (the 2020 Rule).
Now, Alternative 2 was designated the Environmentally Preferable Alternative
As described in the 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule decision, Alternative 2 has been determined to be the environmentally preferred alternative, although the environmental benefits of Alternative 2 in comparison to Alternative 1 are minor. While Alternative 2 would designate and manage slightly fewer acres (approximately 32,000 acres) as Alaska Roadless Areas relative to the acres of Inventoried Roadless in Alternative 1, it would increase conservation of roadless characteristics and values because all the acres designated and managed as Alaska Roadless Areas under Alternative 2 are undeveloped at this time. Specifically, Alternative 2 would remove the roadless designation from 142,000 acres that are designated as Inventoried Roadless Areas under Alternative 1, but have already been roaded, harvested, or substantially altered, and therefore do not currently possess the roadless characteristics and values the 2001 Roadless Rule is intended to conserve. At the same time, Alternative 2 would designate as Alaska Roadless Areas approximately 110,000 acres that are undeveloped land but that were not designated as Inventoried Roadless Areas under the 2001 Rule and, by extension, are not designated as such in Alternative 1. Alternative 2 limits timber harvest opportunities, road construction, and road reconstruction, on the most acres of undeveloped land out of all the alternatives considered.
All other action alternatives considered in the 2020 FEIS involve sizeable roadless area reductions. For this reason, Alternative 2 is the environmentally preferred alternative.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this stuff, the 2001 Rule included lands that were logged and roaded, because of the problems with the maps at the time and the process that they used (including being in a hurry). Knowing that, they put an exception in the 2001 Rule for these areas (the term of art is “substantially altered” but you can substitute Roaded Roadless without any loss of meaning.)
If you look at §294.12, you’ll find that you can maintain classified roads in roadless areas, and also reconstruct them but only if there are environmental threats.
and for timber harvest §294.13 (b) 4: Roadless characteristics have been substantially altered in a portion of an inventoried roadless area due to the construction of a classified road and subsequent timber harvest. Both the road construction and subsequent timber harvest must have occurred after the area was designated an inventoried roadless area and prior to January 12, 2001. Timber may be cut, sold, or removed only in the substantially altered portion of the inventoried roadless area.
In simple language, the 2001 Rule allows continued maintenance of roads (and reconstruction for environmental problems) and timber harvest on “substantially altered acres.”
So back to Alternative 2. It sounds like the idea was to swap out “Roaded Roadless” for new “Unroaded Roadless ” acres. This is what the Colorado Rule did. Given that explanation, let’s go back to why Alternative 2 was designated environmentally preferred . It would take the 142K acres already roaded, harvested, and substantially altered out, and designate 110K new Unroaded Unharvested acres to put under new Roadless protection. So that is how the Department concluded:
Alternative 2 limits timber harvest opportunities, road construction, and road reconstruction, on the most acres of undeveloped land out of all the alternatives considered.
My next post will talk about the Department’s stated rationale for not selecting the environmentally preferable alternative in this case.
If you have any questions or corrections please put them in the comments. This is complicated stuff!