Coalition Files Lawsuits to Challenge Restrictions in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

A coalition of business groups, the state of Alaska, and two electric-power organizations have filed three separate lawsuits challenging a Biden administration rule that restricts the construction of new roads in parts of the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. The Tongass National Forest is home to some of America’s last remaining stands of old-growth trees. The legal complaints argue that the rule makes clean-energy projects and other economic development unaffordable. They cite prospective geothermal and hydroelectric power plants, as well as hypothetical metal mines that could provide resources for green technologies. The lawsuits are seeking to have the new rule, as well as prior versions, overturned.

The Roadless Rule, as it is known, has been the subject of controversy since it was enacted in 2001. However, these lawsuits bring a new perspective to the issue, as the word “logging” appears only once in the court documents. Instead, the focus is on the potential barriers to cost-saving and environmentally beneficial projects. One example provided by the Inside Passage Electric Cooperative is the construction of a power line between Kake and Petersburg. Due to the Roadless Rule, the project would have to be maintained by helicopter, significantly increasing the cost.

The state of Alaska has long opposed the Tongass Roadless Rule across different political administrations. Former Governor Frank Murkowski, along with the Alaska Chamber of Commerce and Resource Development Council of Alaska, is leading one of the lawsuits. The logging industry in Southeast Alaska has declined over the years, and overturning the Roadless Rule is now seen as a way to improve access for projects that require special approval.

The three lawsuits are expected to be combined into one case, and they continue a 22-year-old dispute regarding the authority of the U.S. Forest Service to restrict road building in the Tongass National Forest. The Trump administration passed a new rule that allowed for development in the Tongass, but the implementation was stalled due to lawsuits. The Biden administration’s new rule, enacted in January, replaced the Trump rule.

Although the coalition has faced repeated losses in court over the years, recent legal developments, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in West Virginia v. EPA, have the potential to change the outcome. The Supreme Court is also expected to reinterpret the “Chevron doctrine” in 2024, which could further limit the authority of federal agencies to write regulations. These changes make the legal landscape more favorable for the coalition challenging the Roadless Rule.

– Alaska Beacon: James Brooks