Around 12 Sitkans gave public comment on the resolution, while two demonstrators held signs at the Tuesday Sitka Assembly meeting (KCAW/Rose)

Sitka’s local government has joined the chorus opposed to exempting Alaska from the US Forest Service Roadless Rule. The Sitka Assembly on Tuesday (11-26-19), passed a resolution in favor of “No Change” to the 2001 federal rule — with only Sitka mayor Gary Paxton in dissent.

One week after the Sitka Fish and Game Advisory Committee adopted a resolution calling to keep the Roadless Rule fully intact in Southeast Alaska, the Sitka Assembly has followed suit.

At its last regular meeting (11/26/19), the assembly approved a resolution supporting the “No Action” alternative to the US Forest Service’s recent proposal to exempt Alaska from the federal rule.  

The Roadless Rule was put in place in 2001 to limit further development and resource extraction in National Forests to areas which already have roads. Currently, over half of the 16.7 million acre Tongass National Forest is considered roadless.

Assembly members Kevin Knox and Steven Eisenbeisz sponsored the two-page resolution. Knox listed off numerous organizations in favor of the Roadless Rule remaining as is

“The list is just on and on and on about the support for keeping the Roadless Rule in Southeast Alaska. It’s a major piece for why we live here,” Knox said, “of what drives our way of life, what drives our economy, and a big piece of why I brought it forward.”

During public comment, 12 people spoke, 11 voicing support for the resolution. Many argued that an exemption could have devastating effects on the Tongass and its resources. But why should the local assembly weigh in on the federal rule? Because an exemption, argued commercial salmon troller Lance Preston, could hurt the local economy. 

“I’d just like the assembly and all of us to consider what would happen to the Sitka economy if salmon fisheries experienced a slow death. Without three processing plants, without the charter fleet attracting clients traveling from all over the country to catch salmon, without the 500 plus commercial salmon fishermen who live in Sitka,” he asked, “would we be able to fund our city?” 

Two demonstrators stood in the back of the room holding signs that said “Let it Be” and “No Action, Alternative 1.”

But one person spoke in favor of an exemption: Teresa Helem, a local business owner who said she is concerned with a dwindling local economy, wants to see more of the national forest opened up for development. 

“The Tongass is 16.8 million acres- it’s the size of West Virginia- how much territory do you need to fish and hunt?” she asked. “16 million acres, that’s a lot. There is room for everything and for everybody.”

During deliberation, Mayor Gary Paxton argued that an exemption to the Roadless Rule would allow for more local control.

“It has to do with having control of your own destiny- when you’re in this Roadless Rule our destiny is going to be decided, in terms of this activity, by forces outside of our town and our state,” said Paxton. “So, my view is this [Roadless Rule] is something that is not constructive for our state.” 

And assembly member Kevin Mosher said he’d gone back and forth on the resolution, but finally decided to vote yes. 

“I do not believe the wholesale exemption will bring, in the end, bring economic development to Sitka because of all of the hurdles that would still be present even if there is a full scale exemption, or wholesale,” Mosher said. “I think that we could solve some of these issues in a more positive way.”

Ultimately the assembly voted 5-1 in favor of the resolution supporting a “No action” alternative, with Paxton opposed.

The Forest Service will continue taking public comment on the proposed Roadless Rule Exemption in Alaska through December 17th. 

Read more coverage of the Tuesday (11/26/19) Sitka Assembly meeting

Listen to the full assembly meeting here