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The rule would force the Forest Service to work alongside tribes to protect lands that hold deep cultural and spiritual value to the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian including old-growth forests, salmon watersheds, and burial grounds. If granted, the petition would be the first expansion of “Tribal Consultation” policy, a process that was formalized only recently in 2000, since the Obama administration.
Why This Matters: “Tribal Consultation” policy was formalized just 20 years ago; since then the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations expanded and affirmed the policy. But during the Trump administration, , the policy has not only stagnated but has often been ignored completely. Trump worked throughout his first year in office to reduce Bears Ears National Monument, established by President Obama in 2016, by 85%.
In the case of the Tongass National Forest, the administration blindsided tribal administrators with a last-minute hearing notification that arrived on the day of the hearing. The USDA has continued to ignore the input of the Southeast Alaska tribes, fast-tracking arbitrary deadlines, and refusing to make accommodations for Indigenous communities who have been especially impacted by COVID-19. Despite 95% of submitted comments opposing the Roadless Rule exemption of large swathes of the Tongass, the USDA moved forward.
A Broader Issue: The problem doesn’t end with the USDA; despite expansions of consultation under past administrations, an investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that the consultation process functioned poorly if at all.
Interviews with 57 tribal leaders and comments from 100 tribes brought to light government agencies’ inability, or refusal, to work with tribes in a timely manner, consider their input, or respect their sovereignty.
Agencies cited difficulty contacting tribes and a lack of resources for these failures.
Indigenous groups have also noted that the depth and nuance of cultural value often get lost in the bureaucracy of the consultation process. Marina Anderson, a resident of the small village of Kasaan in Southeast Alaska, recalled, “The Forest Service asked me, ‘How many trees do you guys need left for canoes and totem poles?’ They understand that we need old-growth: tight grain, beautiful logs, straight-grain logs. What they don’t understand is that we don’t have a number for them.”
The current petition over the Tongass highlights the need for comprehensive evaluation and expansion of Tribal Consultation at its foundations.
A Staggering Loss of Nature: Indigenous groups in the region rely on the Tongass for food and other resources like “salmon, Sitka black-tailed deer and wild berries,” and western red and yellow cedar trees, which are used for “regalia, baskets, totem poles, masks, and smokehouses.” In small remote villages like Kasaan, which has no grocery store, the Tongass is a primary source of food. Kate Glover, a staff attorney for Earthjustice emphasized the economic impact this loss may have on Indigenous communities for High Country News, “our tourism and fishing industries have been taking a hit, both because of the pandemic and changing ecosystem conditions that have affected fish runs. We need to protect the forest that they depend on.”
Yellow cedar trees are already imperiled by climate change and if the Trump administration follows through on the Roadless Rule exemption, logging will accelerate the loss of this critical ecosystem. The Tongass Forest is a critical carbon sink, removing the equivalent of 650,000 cars worth of carbon from the atmosphere every year. Losing trees will cause the forest to lose its ability to absorb carbon, releasing that stockpile into the atmosphere and accelerating rising temperatures.
The groups have the backing of 60 Democratic lawmakers, who submitted a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue expressing that the USDA and the Forest Service did not properly consult with tribes that live in and rely on the forest, “The United States Forest Service (USFS) denied native Tribes in Southeast Alaska their requests for the agency to hold face-to-face, government-to-government consultations and subsistence hearings prior to finalizing the FEIS.” The lawmakers criticized the Forest Service’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, saying that it was not a thorough enough investigation into potential ecological impact.
Tribes are hopeful that, even if their petition is denied by the USDA, a new presidential administration may be friendlier to their cause. The Biden-Harris campaign has released a policy plan promising to protect native lands, reverse many of the Trump administration’s decisions, and improve consultation with indigenous groups on climate change.
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