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Rule

Special Areas; Roadless Area Conservation; Applicability to the Tongass National Forest, Alaska

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Information about this document as published in the Federal Register.

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AGENCY:

Forest Service, USDA.

ACTION:

Final rule and record of decision.

SUMMARY:

The Department of Agriculture is adopting this final rule to amend regulations concerning the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (hereinafter, referred to as the roadless rule) to temporarily exempt the Tongass National Forest (hereinafter, referred to as the Tongass) from prohibitions against timber harvest, road construction, and reconstruction in inventoried roadless areas. This temporary exemption of the Tongass will be in effect until the Department promulgates a subsequent final rule concerning the application of the roadless rule within the State of Alaska, as announced in the agency's second advance notice of proposed rulemaking published on July 15, 2003 (68 FR 41864).

In State of Alaska v. USDA, the State of Alaska and other plaintiffs alleged that the roadless rule violated a number of Federal statutes, including the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA). Passed overwhelmingly by Congress in 1980, ANILCA sets aside millions of acres in Alaska for the National Park Service, Forest Service, National Monuments, National Wildlife Refuges, and Wilderness Areas with the understanding that sufficient protection and balance would be ensured between protected areas established by the act and multiple-use managed areas. The Alaska lawsuit alleged that USDA violated ANILCA by applying the requirements of the roadless rule to Alaska's national forests. USDA settled the lawsuit by agreeing to publish a proposed rule which, if adopted, would temporarily exempt the Tongass from the application of the roadless rule (July 15, 2003, 68 FR 41865), and to publish a separate advance notice of proposed rulemaking (July 15, 2003, 68 FR 41864) requesting comment on whether to permanently exempt the Tongass and the Chugach National Forests in Alaska from the application of the roadless rule.

Under this final rule, the vast majority of the Tongass remains off limits to development as specified in the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan. Commercial timber harvest will continue to be prohibited on more than 78 percent of the Tongass as required under the existing forest plan. Exempting the Tongass from the application of the roadless rule makes approximately 300,000 roadless acres available for forest management—slightly more than 3 percent of the 9.34 million roadless acres in the Tongass, or 0.5 percent of the total roadless acres nationwide. This rule also leaves intact all old-growth reserves, riparian buffers, beach fringe buffers, and other protections contained in the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan.

The preamble of this rule includes a discussion of the public comments received on the proposed rule published July 15, 2003 (68 FR 41865) and the Department's responses to the comments. This final rule also serves as the record of decision (ROD) for selection of the Tongass Exempt Alternative identified in the November 2000 final environmental impact statement for the roadless rule.

EFFECTIVE DATE:

This rule is effective January 29, 2004.

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:

In Washington, DC contact: Dave Barone, Planning Specialist, Ecosystem Management Coordination Staff, Forest Service, USDA, (202) 205-1019; and in Juneau, Alaska contact: Jan Lerum, Regional Planner, Forest Service, USDA, (907) 586-8796.

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SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background and Litigation History

On January 12, 2001 (66 FR 3244), the Department published a final roadless rule at Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, part 294 (36 CFR part 294). The roadless rule was a discretionary rule that fundamentally changed the Forest Service's longstanding approach to management of inventoried roadless areas by establishing nationwide prohibitions generally limiting, with some exceptions, timber harvest, road construction, and reconstruction within inventoried roadless areas in national forests. The draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) (May 2000) and final environmental impact statement (FEIS) (November 2000) included alternatives that specifically exempted the Tongass from the roadless rule's prohibitions. As described in the FEIS, the roadless rule was predicted to cause substantial social and economic hardship in communities throughout Southeast Alaska (FEIS Vol. 1, 3-202, 3-326 to 3-352, 3-371 to 3-392). Nonetheless, the final roadless rule's prohibitions were extended to the Tongass.

Since its promulgation, the roadless rule has been the subject of a number of lawsuits in Federal district courts in Idaho, Utah, North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, and the District of Columbia. In one of these lawsuits, the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho issued a nationwide preliminary injunction prohibiting implementation of the roadless rule. The preliminary injunction decision was reversed and remanded by a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit's preliminary ruling held that the Forest Service's preparation of the environmental impact statement for the roadless rule was in conformance with the general statutory requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Subsequently, the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming held that the Department had violated NEPA and the Wilderness Act in promulgating the roadless rule. As relief, the court directed the roadless rule be set aside and the agency be permanently enjoined from implementing the roadless rule at 36 CFR part 294. An appeal is pending in the Tenth Circuit. Several other cases remain pending in other Federal district courts.

In another lawsuit, the State of Alaska and six other parties alleged that the roadless rule violated the Administrative Procedure Act, National Forest Management Act, National Start Printed Page 75137Environmental Policy Act, Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, Tongass Timber Reform Act, and other laws. In the June 10, 2003, settlement of that lawsuit, the Department committed to publishing a proposed rule with request for comment that would temporarily exempt the Tongass from application of the roadless rule until completion of a rulemaking process to make permanent amendments to the roadless rule. Also pursuant to the settlement agreement, the Department agreed to publish an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to exempt both the Tongass and Chugach National Forests from the application of the roadless rule. The ANPR and the proposed rule were both published in Part II of the Federal Register on July 15, 2003 (68 FR 41864). The Department made no representations in the settlement agreement regarding the content or substance of any final rule that might result.

Most Southeast Alaska Communities Are Significantly Impacted by the Roadless Rule

There are 32 communities within the boundary of the Tongass. Most Southeast Alaska communities lack road and utility connections to other communities and to the mainland systems. Because most Southeast Alaska communities are nearly surrounded on land by inventoried roadless areas of the Tongass, the roadless rule significantly limits the ability of communities to develop road and utility connections that almost all other communities in the United States take for granted. Under this final rule, communities in Southeast Alaska can propose road and utility connections across National Forest System land that will benefit their communities. Any such community proposal would be evaluated on its own merits.

In addition, the preponderance of Federal land in Southeast Alaska results in communities being more dependent upon Tongass National Forest lands and having fewer alternative lands to generate jobs and economic activity. The communities of Southeast Alaska are particularly affected by the roadless rule prohibitions. The November 2000 FEIS for the roadless rule estimated that a total of approximately 900 jobs could be lost in the long run in Southeast Alaska due to the application of the roadless rule, including direct job losses in the timber industry as well as indirect job losses in other sectors.

Roadless Areas Are Common, Not Rare, on the Tongass National Forest

The 16.8-million-acre Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska is approximately 90 percent roadless and undeveloped. Commercial timber harvest and road construction are already prohibited in the vast majority of the 9.34 million acres of inventoried roadless areas in the Tongass, either through Congressional designation or through the Tongass Forest Plan. Application of the roadless rule to the Tongass is unnecessary to maintain the roadless values of these areas.

Congress has designated 39 percent of the Tongass as Wilderness, National Monument, or other special designations, which prohibit timber harvest and road construction with certain limited exceptions. An additional 39 percent of the Tongass is managed under the Forest Plan to maintain natural settings where timber harvest and road construction are generally not allowed. About 4 percent of the Tongass is designated suitable for commercial timber harvest, with about half of that area contained within inventoried roadless areas. The remaining 18 percent of the Forest is managed for various multiple uses. The Tongass Forest Plan provides high levels of resource protection and has been designed to ensure ecological sustainability over time, while allowing some development to occur that supports communities dependent on the management of National Forest System lands in Southeast Alaska.

In addition, within the State of Alaska as a whole, there is an extensive network of federally protected areas. Alaska has the greatest amount of land and the highest percentage of its land base in conservation reserves of any State. Federal lands comprise 59 percent of the State and 40 percent of Federal lands in Alaska are in conservation system units. The Southeast Alaska region contains 21 million acres of additional protected lands in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

Different Approaches Considered for the Tongass National Forest

The unique situation of the Tongass has been recognized throughout the Forest Service's process for examining prohibitions in inventoried roadless areas. The process for developing the roadless rule included different options for the Tongass in each stage of the promulgation of the rule and each stage of the environmental impact statement. At each stage, however, the option of exempting the Tongass from the rule's prohibitions was considered in detail.

In February 1999, the agency exempted the Tongass and other Forests with recently revised forest plans from an interim rule prohibiting new road construction. The October 1999 notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for the roadless rule specifically requested comment on whether or not the rule should apply to the Tongass in light of the recent revision of the Tongass Forest Plan and the ongoing economic transition of communities and the timber program in Southeast Alaska. The May 2000 DEIS for the roadless rule proposed not to apply prohibitions on the Tongass, but to determine whether road construction should be prohibited in unroaded portions of inventoried roadless areas as part of the 5-year review of the Tongass Forest Plan.

The preferred alternative was revised in the November 2000 FEIS to include prohibitions on timber harvest, as well as road construction and reconstruction on the Tongass, but with a delay in the effective date of the prohibitions until April 2004. This was one of four Tongass alternatives analyzed in the FEIS, including the Tongass Exempt Alternative, under which the prohibitions of the roadless rule would not apply to the Tongass. The FEIS recognized that the economic and social impacts of including the Tongass in the roadless rule's prohibitions could be of considerable consequence in communities where the forest products industry is a significant component of local economies. The FEIS also noted that if the Tongass were exempt from the roadless rule prohibitions, loss of habitat and species abundance would not pose an unacceptable risk to diversity across the forest.

However, the final January 12, 2001, roadless rule directed an immediate applicability of the nationwide prohibitions on timber harvest, road construction and reconstruction on the Tongass, except for projects that already had a notice of availability of a draft environmental impact statement published in the Federal Register.

Why Is USDA Going Forward With This Rulemaking?

This final rule has been developed in light of the factors and issues described in this preamble, including (1) serious concerns about the previously disclosed economic and social hardships that application of the rule's prohibitions would cause in communities throughout Southeast Alaska, (2) comments received on the proposed rule, and (3) litigation over the last two years.Start Printed Page 75138

Given the great uncertainty about the implementation of the roadless rule due to the various lawsuits, the Department has decided to adopt this final rule, initiated pursuant to the settlement agreement with the State of Alaska, to temporarily exempt the Tongass National Forest from the prohibitions of the roadless rule. This final rule at § 294.14 allows the Forest to continue to be managed pursuant to the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan, which includes the non-significant amendments, readopted in the February 2003 record of decision (2003 Plan) issued in response to the District Court's remand of the 1997 Plan in Sierra Club v. Rey (D. Alaska), until the 2003 Plan is revised or further amended. Both documents were developed through balanced and open planning processes, based on years of extensive public involvement and thorough scientific review. The 2003 Tongass Forest Plan provides a full consideration of social, economic, and ecological values in Southeast Alaska. This final rule does not reduce any of the old-growth reserves, riparian buffers, beach fringe buffers, or other standards and guidelines of the 2003 Tongass Forest Plan or in any way impact the protections afforded by the plan. The final rule maintains options for a variety of social and economic uses of the Tongass, which was a key factor in the previous decision to approve the plan in 1997.

The final rule also addresses the important question of whether the rule should apply on the Tongass in the short term if the roadless rule were to be reinstated by court order. The Department has determined that, at least in the short term, the roadless values on the Tongass are sufficiently protected under the Tongass Forest Plan and that the additional restrictions associated with the roadless rule are not required. Further, reliance on the Tongass Forest Plan in the short term does not foreclose options regarding the future rulemaking associated with the permanent, statewide consideration of these issues for Alaska. Indeed, this final rule reflects a conclusion similar to that identified as the preferred alternative in the original proposed roadless rule and draft EIS; that is, not to impose the prohibitions immediately, but to allow for future consideration of the matter when more information may be available.

Finally, the Department fully recognizes the unusual posture of this rulemaking, as it is amending a rule that has been set aside by a Federal court. The Department maintains that such an amendment is contrary neither to law nor to the court's injunction. Instead, it is a reasonable and lawful exercise of the Department's authority to resolve policy questions regarding management of National Forest System land and resources, especially in light of the conflicting judicial determinations. Adopting this final rule reduces the potential for conflicts regardless of the disposition of the various lawsuits.

Changes Between Proposed Rule and Final Rule

Only one substantive change has been made between the proposed rule and the final rule. At § 294.14, the proposed rule stated at paragraph (d) that the temporary exemption of the Tongass would be in effect until the USDA promulgates a revised final roadless area conservation rule, for which the agency sought public comments in the July 10, 2001, advance notice of proposed rulemaking (66 FR 35918). Intervening events necessitate an adjustment, and, therefore, § 294.14 of the final rule now states at paragraph (d) that the temporary exemption of the Tongass National Forest remains in place until the USDA promulgates a final rule concerning applicability of 36 CFR part 294, subpart B within the State of Alaska, as announced in the agency's second advance notice of proposed rulemaking published on July 15, 2003 (68 FR 41864). A minor change also has been made for clarity by adding the word “road” before “reconstruction.”

The Department has previously indicated that it would proceed with the roadless rulemakings, while taking numerous factors into consideration, including the outcomes of ongoing litigation. The Wyoming District Court's setting aside of the roadless rule with the admonition that the Department “must start over” represents such a circumstance. Since the roadless rule has been set aside, the Department has determined that the best course of action is to clarify that the duration of this Tongass-specific rulemaking will last until completion of rulemaking efforts associated with the application of the roadless rule in Alaska.

Summary of Public Comments and the Department's Responses

The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on July 15, 2003, for a 30-day public comment period (68 FR 41865). Due to public requests for additional time, the comment period was extended by 19 days for a total of 49 days. The Forest Service received approximately 133,000 comments on the proposed rule. All comments were considered in reaching a decision on the final rule. In addition, appropriate sections of Volume 3 of the November 2000 roadless rule FEIS (Agency Responses to Public Comments) that addressed the Tongass alternatives were also reviewed and considered. A summary of comments and the Department's responses to them are summarized as follows.

General Comments. Virtually all of the Southeast Alaska municipalities that responded to the proposed rule expressed strong support for it. Many noted that Alaska contains more land in protected status than all other States combined, and that applying the roadless rule to the Tongass would foreclose opportunities for sustainable economic development throughout Southeast Alaska. Several respondents asked the Department to discontinue or abandon this rulemaking based on their preference to retain the roadless rule prohibitions for the Tongass. Others argued that it was illegal for USDA to pursue amendments to a rule that has been set aside by a Federal district court.

Respondents expressed different views regarding the roadless rule and its applicability to the Tongass. In general, they took one of two positions: (1) Some saw the exemption of the Tongass as a positive step toward reversing what they consider to be overly restrictive management direction imposed by the roadless rule, and therefore they recommended the exemption; and (2) others wanted the Forest Service to retain the roadless rule as adopted in 2001 because they believed it offers a well-balanced approach to forest management that has received overwhelming public support.

Response. The Department believes that the best course of action is to complete this rulemaking for the Tongass that would govern should the roadless rule come back into effect as a result of the pending litigation.

Environmental Effects of the Proposed Rule. The agency received comments regarding the effects the proposed exemption from the roadless rule would have on the natural resources of the Tongass. Some respondents expressed their view that 70 percent of the highest volume timber stands in Southeast Alaska have been harvested, and exempting the Tongass from the roadless rule would lead to the harvest of most or all of the remainder of such stands. Some regarded the highest volume stands as “the biological heart of the forest,” and believed any additional harvest would have severe adverse effects on the environment, especially fish and wildlife habitat. Other respondents stated that the Tongass Forest Plan provides stringent environmental protection measures that Start Printed Page 75139will minimize the effects of timber harvest activities on the other resources of the Tongass.

Response. The Tongass has about 9.4 million acres of old-growth forest, of which about 5 million acres contain trees of commercial size. These 5 million acres are referred to as productive old-growth forest. The Tongass Forest Plan allows no timber harvest on nearly 90 percent of the 5 million acres of existing productive old growth. The agency calculates that, at most, 28 percent of the highest volume stands have been harvested, not the 70 percent as claimed. The Tongass Forest Plan prohibits harvest on the vast majority of the remaining highest volume stands.

Although timber volume has often been used as a proxy for habitat quality, a variety of forest attributes and ecological factors influence habitat quality, with different attributes being important for different species. The Tongass Forest Plan, developed over several years with intensive scientific and public scrutiny, takes these and other factors into consideration in its old-growth habitat conservation strategy. The forest plan includes a system of small, medium, and large old growth reserves, well distributed across the Forest, and a stringent set of measures to protect areas of high quality wildlife habitat, such as areas along streams, rivers, estuaries, and coastline. As explained in the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan FEIS and the 2003 supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS), good wildlife habitat is abundant on the Tongass, on which 92 percent of the productive old-growth forest that was present in 1954 remains today. Even if timber is harvested for 120 years at the maximum level allowed by the Tongass Forest Plan, 83 percent of the productive old-growth forest that was present on the Tongass in 1954 would remain. Extensive, unmodified natural environments characterize the Tongass and will continue to do so. Even with the exemption of the Tongass from the prohibitions in the roadless rule, old-growth is and will continue to be the predominant vegetative structure on the Tongass.

Desirability of a National Standard for Roadless Protection. Some respondents, including a number of Members of Congress, expressed support for the roadless rule as adopted in January, 2001, which these respondents regard as a landmark national standard that is essential to ensure the long-term protection of roadless values. These respondents maintained that the proposed rule would seriously undermine that national standard by exempting the largest national forest in the country, which contains nearly 16 percent of the acreage protected by the roadless rule. Other respondents stated that the ecological, geographic, and socioeconomic conditions on the Tongass and among the local communities of Southeast Alaska are so different from those on national forests outside of Alaska that any nationwide approach, such as the prohibitions contained in the roadless rule, would necessarily impose undue hardship on the communities of Southeast Alaska.

Response. The agency recognized the unique situation of the Tongass in the discussion of a national roadless policy throughout the development of the EIS for the roadless rule. In addition to the range of policy alternatives considered in the EIS, the agency developed a full range of alternatives specifically applicable to the Tongass, ranging from the Tongass Not Exempt Alternative (selected as part of the final rule in the 2001 record of decision) to the Tongass Exempt Alternative (now proposed for selection). The tradeoffs involved in these alternatives are fully evaluated in the roadless rule EIS. The comments raised no new issues that are not already fully explored in the EIS.

The Tongass has a higher percentage of roadless acres, over 90 percent, than nearly any other national forest except the Chugach National Forest. The Tongass Forest Plan generally prohibits road construction on 74 percent of the roadless acres, which will ensure that the Tongass remains one of the most unroaded and undeveloped national forests in the system. Even if timber were to be harvested at maximum allowable levels for 50 years, at least 80 percent of the currently existing roadless areas will remain essentially in their natural condition after 50 years of implementing the Forest Plan. Roadless areas and their associated values are and will continue to be abundant on the Tongass, even without the prohibitions of the roadless rule. Southeast Alaska is also unique in that 94 percent of the area is Federal land (80 percent Tongass National Forest, 14 percent Glacier Bay National Park), and 6 percent is State, Native Corporation, and private lands.

The impacts of the roadless rule on local communities in the Tongass are particularly serious. Of the 32 communities in the region, 29 are unconnected to the nation's highway system. Most are surrounded by marine waters and undeveloped National Forest System land. The potential for economic development of these communities is closely linked to the ability to build roads and rights of ways for utilities in roadless areas of the National Forest System. Although Federal Aid Highways are permitted under the roadless rule, many other road needs would not be met. This is more important in Southeast Alaska than in most other States that have a much smaller portion of Federal land. Likewise, the timber operators in Southeast Alaska tend to be more dependent on resource development opportunities on National Forest System land than their counterparts in other parts of the country because there are few neighboring alternative supplies of resources for Southeast Alaska.

The agency also recognized the unique situation on the Tongass during the development of the roadless rule, and proposed treating the Tongass differently from other national forests until the final rule was adopted in January 2001. At that time, the Department decided that ensuring lasting protection of roadless values on the Tongass outweighed the attendant socioeconomic losses to local communities. The Department now believes that, considered together, the abundance of roadless values on the Tongass, the protection of roadless values included in the Tongass Forest Plan, and the socioeconomic costs to local communities of applying the roadless rule's prohibitions to the Tongass, all warrant treating the Tongass differently from the national forests outside of Alaska.

Scientific Basis for the Proposed Rule. The agency received comments that there is no scientific basis for exempting the Tongass from the roadless rule, and that the old growth conservation strategy included in the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan is scientifically inadequate. Indeed, some of the scientists who provided input during the development of that plan commented in opposition to exempting the Tongass from the roadless rule. Others noted that the 1997 Forest Plan, developed with over 10 years of intensive public involvement and scientific scrutiny, and embodied an appropriate balance between the ecological, social, and economic components of sustainability.

Response. Science can predict, within certain parameters, the impacts of policy choices, but it cannot tell what policy to adopt. The 1997 Tongass Forest Plan FEIS and roadless rule FEIS describe the impacts of a wide range of possible land management policies. The science underlying these predictions was subject to rigorous peer review. However, ultimately, the role of science is to inform policy makers rather than to make policy.

The Tongass Forest Plan is based on sound science. As an example, the forest Start Printed Page 75140plan includes an old growth habitat conservation strategy, outlined in the response to comments on environmental effects of the proposed rule that is one of the best in the world. The strategy provides habitat to maintain well-distributed, viable populations of old-growth-associated species across the Forest. The strategy also considers development on adjacent State and private lands. Many existing roadless areas were also incorporated into reserves using non-development land use designations. The strategy was scientifically developed and was subjected to independent scientific peer review.

The science consistency review process used in developing the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan is seen as a model for science-based management that has been emulated in other Forest Service planning efforts. Planning is not a process of science, but rather is a process that uses scientific information to assist officials in making decisions. Under the scientific consistency process, the role of science in planning is explicitly defined as requiring that all relevant scientific information available must be considered; scientific information must be understood and correctly interpreted, including the uncertainty regarding that information; and the resource risks associated with the decision must be acknowledged and documented. The 1997 Tongass Forest Plan meets these criteria, as documented in “Evaluation of the Use of Scientific Information in Developing the 1997 Forest Plan for the Tongass,” published by the Department's Pacific Northwest Research Station in 1997. Exempting the Tongass from the prohibitions of the roadless rule returns management of the Tongass to the direction contained in a forest plan that has undergone thorough scientific review, which found the Tongass Forest Plan to be consistent with the available science.

Compliance with Executive Order 13175 and Finding of No “Tribal Implications.” An Alaska Native community disagreed with the agency's finding that the proposed rule does not have “Tribal implications” under Executive Order 13175. The community's comment included concerns about “catastrophic economic and social losses due to the shutdown of the Tongass,” and noted that more than 200 timber-related jobs have been lost in that community since the roadless rule was implemented. The comment also outlined Federal law and policy that mandates consideration of Tribal economic well-being.

Response. The agency did not conclude that the roadless policy has “no impact” on Tribes, because clearly the loss of jobs and economic opportunity has greatly affected some of them. The stated severe effect on the social and economic fabric of life in Southeast Alaska from the decline in the timber industry is one of the reasons the Department is adopting an exemption to the roadless rule for the Tongass. Exempting the Tongass from the prohibitions in the roadless rule will mean that more options will be available to alleviate some of these impacts. A primary focus of the exemption is to reduce the social and economic impacts to Tribes.

The agency did conclude that the proposed rule to exempt the Tongass from the roadless rule would not impinge on Tribal sovereignty, would not require Tribal expenditures of funds, and would not change the distribution of power between the Federal government and Indian or Alaska Native Tribes. It is under this narrow sense of Executive Order 13175 that the finding of no Tribal implications was made for the proposed rule. For this final rule, the Department has determined that there could be substantial future direct effects to one or more Tribes, and that these effects are anticipated to be positive. A discussion regarding consultation and coordination with Indian Tribal Governments about this final rule in accordance with Executive Order 13175 can be found in the Regulatory Certification section of this preamble.

Volume of Public Comment and Support for the Roadless Rule. Many comments discussed the volume of public comment received over the past 5 years in support of the roadless rule and its application to the Tongass. Some people said that the roadless rule is a landmark conservation policy that has been supported by 2.2 million people, and, therefore the proposed rule ignored the wishes of the vast majority of roadless rule comments supporting protection of roadless areas in all national forests, including Alaska's. Other people noted that nearly all elected officials in Alaska opposed the roadless rule and supported the exemption.

Response. Every comment received is considered for its substance and contribution to informed decisionmaking whether it is one comment repeated by tens of thousands of people or a comment submitted by only one person. The public comment process is not a scientifically valid survey process to determine public opinion. The emphasis in the comment review process is on the content of the comment rather than on the number of times a comment was received. The comment analysis is intended to identify each unique substantive comment relative to the proposed rule to facilitate its consideration in the decisionmaking process. In matters of controversial national policy, it is impossible to please everyone. When those commenting do not see their view reflected in the final decision, they should not conclude that their comments were ignored. All comments are considered, including comments that support and that oppose the proposal. That people do not agree on how public lands should be managed is a historical, as well as modern dilemma faced by resource managers. However, public comment processes, while imperfect, do provide a vital avenue for engaging a wide array of the public in resource management processes and outcomes.

Adequacy of Timber Volume along Existing Roads. The agency received comments regarding the effect of the roadless rule's prohibitions on supplies to forest product industries in Southeast Alaska. Some respondents stated the exemption of the Tongass from the roadless rule was not necessary because the roadless rule FEIS projected 50 million board feet could be harvested annually in the developed areas along the existing road system on the Tongass. Some commented they believed there was an adequate amount of national forest timber currently under contract to keep the forest products industry supplied for a number of years. Other respondents stated the exemption was necessary if forest product industries in Southeast Alaska were to have enough timber volume to maintain their operations.

Response. Only 4 percent of the Tongass is available for commercial timber harvest under the forest plan. About half of this is in inventoried roadless areas. Further reductions in areas available for timber harvest to an already very limited timber supply would have unacceptable social, aesthetic, and environmental impacts. As was disclosed in the roadless rule FEIS, a sustained annual harvest level of 50 million board feet would not support all of the timber processing facilities in the region.

The Tongass Timber Reform Act directs the Secretary of Agriculture to seek to provide a supply of timber from the Tongass, which (1) meets the annual market demand for timber from the forest and (2) meets the market demand from the forest for each planning cycle, consistent with providing for the Start Printed Page 75141multiple use and sustained yield of all renewable forest resources, and subject to appropriations, other applicable law, and the requirements of the National Forest Management Act.

Benchmark harvest levels displayed in the roadless rule FEIS for the Tongass Exempt Alternative were based on a long-term market demand estimate of 124 million board feet (MMBF) per year. The procedure used to derive this figure is documented in a 1997 report by Forest Service economists, which predicted Tongass National Forest timber demand through 2010, relying upon such factors as current processing capacity in the region and the market share of Southeast Alaskan products in their principal markets (Timber Products Output and Timber Harvests in Alaska: Projections for 1997 to 2010. Brooks and Haynes, 1997. Pacific Northwest Research Station). Copies of this report may be obtained at 333 Southwest First Avenue, P.O. Box 3890, Portland, OR 97208-3890. Three different market scenarios (low, medium, and high) were considered, and the 124 MMBF figure represents the average value of the low market scenario estimates for the years 2001 through 2010. Comparable estimates for the medium and high scenarios are 151 and 184 MMBF per year, respectively.

Though the 1999 harvest level, at 146 MMBF, more closely approximates the medium market demand scenario, the roadless rule FEIS chose the low market for its benchmark analysis, and recent developments support this decision. If anything, the low market scenario appears optimistic in light of the 48 MMBF of Tongass National Forest timber harvested in 2001, the 34 MMBF harvested in 2002, and the 51 MMBF harvested in 2003 (fiscal years). At the end of fiscal year 2003, the amount of timber under contract on the Tongass was 193 MMBF, although the agency seeks to provide a sustained flow of timber sale offerings sufficient to maintain a volume under contract equal to 3 years of estimated timber demand. Recently, Congress enacted P.L. 108-108, Department of Interior and Related Agencies Appropriation Act for fiscal year 2004. Section 339 of this Act authorizes cancellation of certain timber sale contracts on the Tongass National Forest and provides that the timber included in such cancelled contracts shall be available for resale by the Secretary of Agriculture. Complete descriptions of the timber scheduling and pipeline process are found in Appendix A of all timber sale project environmental impact statements for the Tongass.

The last three years represent a significant aberration from historical harvest levels. The 1980-2002 average harvest was 269 MMBF, and in no year prior to 2001 did the harvest level fall below 100 MMBF. As recently as 1995, the Tongass National Forest harvests were in excess of 200 MMBF, and the average harvest over the 1995-2002 time period was approximately 120 MMBF. In light of this historical performance, the 124 MMFB low market estimate is not an unreasonable expectation for the coming decade, particularly if the current slump is merely a cyclical downturn. Of course market conditions may continue to deteriorate, and current low or even lower levels of harvest may become the norm. But in this case both the “negative” impacts of roading in roadless areas as well as the “positive” impacts related to employment would be reduced.

The Department believes that the roadless rule prohibitions operate as an unnecessary and complicating factor limiting where timber harvesting may occur. Accomplishment of social, economic, and biological goals can best be met through the management direction established through the Tongass Forest Plan.

Need for a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Some respondents said a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) is necessary before a decision can be made to exempt the Tongass from the prohibitions in the roadless rule. They suggested that new information or changed circumstances have occurred that have changed the effects disclosed in the roadless rule FEIS, so a supplement is required. The changes most often cited included the set aside of the 1999 record of decision (ROD) for the Tongass Forest Plan and the changes in timber harvest levels and related employment in Southeast Alaska. Others also mentioned the updated roadless area inventory that was completed for the 2003 record of decision on wilderness recommendations and the pending land exchange with Sealaska, an Alaska Native Corporation.

Response. The determination of whether a supplemental EIS is required involves a two-step process. First new information must be identified and, second, an analysis of whether the new information is significant to the proposed action must be completed. The Forest Service has prepared a supplemental information report that describes this process, the analysis completed, and the conclusions reached. This report is available on the World Wide Web/Internet on the Forest Service Roadless Area Conservation Web site at http://www.roadless.fs.fed.us.

The conclusion in the supplemental information report is that the identified new information and changed circumstances do not result in significantly different environmental effects from those described in the roadless rule FEIS. Such differences as may exist are not of a scale or intensity to be relevant to the adoption of this final rule or to support selection of another alternative from the roadless rule FEIS. Consequently, the overall decisionmaking picture is not substantially different from what it was in November 2000, when the roadless rule FEIS was completed. The effects of adopting the proposed rule as final have been displayed to the public and thoroughly considered. For all these reasons, no additional environmental analysis is required.

Economic Effects of the Roadless Rule. The agency received many comments regarding the economic effects that the roadless rule has had or would have in Southeast Alaska. People who commented were concerned about the ability of Southeast Alaska to develop a sustainable economy if the Tongass is not exempted from the roadless rule prohibitions. Concerns expressed included the limitation of the development of infrastructure, such as roads and utilities that are taken for granted elsewhere in the United States, the loss of jobs, and the loss of opportunity for Southeast Alaska to grow and develop responsibly. Other people said that any economic benefits from exempting the Tongass from the prohibitions in roadless rule are far smaller than estimated, while the adverse effects to the environment will be far greater.

Response. In the January 2001 record of decision on the roadless rule, the Secretary of Agriculture acknowledged the adverse economic effects to some forest-dependent communities from the prohibitions in the roadless rule. The decision was made to apply the roadless rule to the Tongass even though it was recognized there would be adverse effects to some communities. Due to serious concerns about these previously disclosed economic and social hardships the roadless rule would cause in communities throughout Southeast Alaska, the Department moved forward to reexamine the rule.

The Department has concluded that the social and economic hardships to Southeast Alaska outweigh the potential long-term ecological benefits because the Tongass Forest Plan adequately provides for the ecological sustainability Start Printed Page 75142of the Tongass. Every facet of Southeast Alaska's economy is important, and the potential adverse impacts from application of the roadless rule are not warranted, given the abundance of roadless areas and protections already afforded in the Tongass Forest Plan. Approximately 90 percent of the 16.8 million acres in the Tongass National Forest is roadless and undeveloped. Over three-quarters (78 percent) of these 16.8 million acres are either Congressionally designated or managed under the forest plan as areas where timber harvest and road construction are not allowed. About 4 percent are designated suitable for commercial timber harvest, with about half of that area (300,000 acres) contained within inventoried roadless areas.

As discussed in the roadless rule FEIS (Vol. 1, 3-202, 3-326 to 3-350, 3-371 to 3-392), substantial negative economic effects are anticipated if the roadless rule is applied to the Tongass, which include the potential loss of approximately 900 jobs in Southeast Alaska. With the adoption of this final rule, the potential negative economic effects should not occur in Southeast Alaska. Even if the maximum harvest permissible under the Tongass Forest Plan is actually harvested, at least 80 percent of the currently remaining roadless areas will remain essentially in their natural condition after 50 years of implementing the forest plan. If the Tongass is exempted from the prohibitions in the roadless rule, the nation will still realize long-term ecological benefits because of the large area that will remain undeveloped and unfragmented, with far less social and economic disruption to Southeast Alaska's communities.

Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Some people said that ANILCA was enacted with the promise that it provided sufficient protection for Alaska land and that no further administrative withdrawals could be allowed without express Congressional approval. Others said that the roadless rule does not violate the provisions in ANILCA.

Response. In passing ANILCA in 1980, Congress established 14 wildernesses totaling 5.5 million acres on the Tongass, and found that this act provided sufficient protection for the national interest in the scenic, natural, cultural, and environmental values on the public lands in Alaska, and at the same time provided adequate opportunity for satisfaction of the economic and social needs of the State of Alaska and its people. Accordingly, the designation and disposition of the public lands in Alaska pursuant to this act were found to represent a proper balance between the reservation of national conservation system units and those public lands necessary and appropriate for more intensive use and disposition. Congress believed that the need for future legislation designating new conservation system units, new national conservation areas, or new national recreation areas, had been obviated by provisions in ANILCA.

In 1990, Congress enacted the Tongass Timber Reform Act (TTRA) to amend ANILCA by directing the Secretary of Agriculture, subject to certain limitations, to seek to provide a supply of timber from the Tongass National Forest, which (1) meets the annual market demand for timber and (2) meets the market demand for timber for each planning cycle, consistent with providing for the multiple use and sustained yield of all renewable forest resources, and subject to appropriations, other applicable laws, and the requirements of the National Forest Management Act.

Further, the TTRA designated 5 new wildernesses and 1 wilderness addition on the Tongass, totaling 296,000 acres. The act also designated 12 permanent Land Use Designation (LUD) II areas, totaling 727,765 acres. Congressionally designated LUD II areas are to be managed in a roadless state to retain their wildland characteristics; however, they are less restrictive on access and activities than wilderness, primarily to accommodate recreation and subsistence activities and to provide vital Forest transportation and utility system linkages, if necessary.

These statutes provide important Congressional determinations, findings, and information relating to management of National Forest System lands on the Tongass National Forest, and were considered carefully during this rulemaking. Expressions of legal concerns and support for the various rulemakings have also been considered. This final rule reflects the Department's assessment of how to best implement the letter and spirit of congressional direction along with public values, in light of the abundance of roadless values on the Tongass, the protection of roadless values already included in the Tongass Forest Plan, and the socioeconomic costs to local communities of applying the roadless rule's prohibitions.

Roadless areas are common, not rare, on the Tongass National Forest, and most Southeast Alaska communities are significantly impacted by the roadless rule. The Department believes that exempting the Tongass from the prohibitions in the roadless rule is consistent with congressional direction and intent in the ANILCA and the TTRA legislation.

Adequacy of the Roadless Rule Concerning NEPA and Other Laws. Some people commented that the roadless rule was adopted in violation of NEPA because, according to those commenters, the roadless rule EIS failed to take the hard look that NEPA requires. Other concerns expressed about the roadless rule included alleged violations of the National Forest Management Act, Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act, and Wilderness Act, and concerns that the roadless rule failed to explicitly acknowledge valid and existing access rights to private lands.

Response. The roadless rule continues to be the subject of ongoing litigation in the district courts and one Federal appeals court. Hence, the validity of the roadless rule is still in question. However, the Department believes that application of the roadless rule to the Tongass is inappropriate, regardless of whether the roadless rule is otherwise found to be valid or lawful. Given the pending litigation, the Department believes it is prudent to proceed with a decision on temporarily exempting the Tongass from the prohibitions in the roadless rule.

Effects of the Roadless Rule on Construction of Roads and Utility Corridors. Some people who commented said that because the roadless rule allows construction of Federal Aid Highway projects and roads needed to protect public health and safety, there are no significant limits on the ability of communities to develop road and utility connections in Southeast Alaska. Similarly, they said that utility corridors can be built and maintained without roads by using helicopters, so the opportunities for utility transmissions would not be limited either. Others, including local communities and elected officials, said that the roadless rule would impact the development of the Southeast Alaska Electrical Intertie System that is planned to provide communities throughout the region with clean, reliable, and affordable power.

Response. There is a need to retain opportunities for the communities of Southeast Alaska regarding basic access and utility infrastructure. This is related primarily to road systems, the State ferry system, electrical utility lines, and hydropower opportunities that are on the horizon. This need reflects in part the overall undeveloped nature of the Tongass and the relationship of the 32 communities that are found within its boundaries. Most, if not all, of the Start Printed Page 75143communities are lacking in at least some of the basic access and infrastructure necessary for reasonable services, economic stability, and growth that almost all other communities in the United States have had the opportunity to develop.

The roadless rule permits the construction of Federal Aid Highways only if the Secretary of Agriculture determines that the project is in the public interest and that no other reasonable and prudent alternative exists (36 CFR 294.12). Such a finding may not always be possible for otherwise desirable road projects.

Similarly, although some utility corridors can be constructed and maintained without a road, others may require a road. Even where a utility corridor without a road may be physically possible, it may be more expensive or otherwise less desirable than a utility accompanied by a service road. If the road construction is inexpensive or needed for other reasons, then utility corridors may often adjoin the road because of the ease of access for maintenance and repairs of utility systems. Indeed, most utility corridors in the United States were developed next to a pre-existing road.

The history of road development in Southeast Alaska since statehood is that most State highway additions have been upgraded from roads built to harvest timber. In the last 20 years, this has occurred predominantly on Prince of Wales Island, better connecting the communities of Hollis, Hydaburg, Craig, Klawock, Thorne Bay, Whale Pass, Naukati, Kaasan, and Coffman Cove with all-weather highways. Without the pioneering work done by the Forest Service in building roads to harvest timber, it is unclear whether the State would have undertaken the construction of those road connections. By precluding the construction of roads for timber harvest, the roadless rule reduces future options for similar upgrades, which may be critical to economic survival of many of the smaller communities in Southeast Alaska. Moreover, roads initially developed for timber or other resource management purposes often have value to local communities and sometimes become important access links between communities, even if they are never upgraded as Federal Aid Highways. By exempting the Tongass from the prohibitions in the roadless rule, each utility or transportation proposal can be evaluated on its own merit.

Tongass Roads and Fiscal Considerations. Some people said that because the Tongass has a backlog of road maintenance and fish passage problems, primarily inadequate culverts, it makes no sense to spend money on new roads until these problems are corrected. Others said that the funds the Tongass receives from Congress to prepare timber sales and do roadwork could be better spent on other needs.

Response. The Tongass is currently spending about $2 million per year to correct fish passage barriers and continues to seek funding and opportunities to clear the maintenance backlog. Forest Service roads in Alaska are vital to neighboring communities because most areas have at most an underdeveloped road system. Permanent Forest Service roads (known as classified roads) are often the only roads available to communities and for recreation opportunities. The Alaska Region, with only 3,600 miles of classified Forest Service roads, has the fewest miles of roads of all the regions of the Forest Service, and about one-third of these are closed to motorized use. New roads will be necessary to access sufficient timber to support existing small sawmills. Over the years, standards for construction and maintenance of roads have changed significantly. Roads and stream crossings built today adhere to very high standards designed to protect fisheries, important wetlands, unstable soils, wildlife use and habitats, and other resource values.

Roads on the Tongass are used by the public for a variety of reasons, including recreation, subsistence access, and other personal uses. The roads are also used by the Forest Service in accomplishing work for various resource programs. None of these programs is sufficient to provide for all the road maintenance needs. In the 2003 Tongass Forest-Level Roads Analysis, fish passage and sedimentation maintenance needs were identified as the critical categories of the deferred maintenance cost schedule.

Transportation planning is an integral part of the interdisciplinary process used to develop site-specific projects on the Tongass. The transportation planning process includes collaboration between the agency and local communities to identify the minimum road system that is safe and responsive to public needs while minimizing maintenance costs.

Relationship of This Rule to Other Rulemaking. One commenter read 40 CFR 1506.1 as requiring an EIS for the temporary exemption of the Tongass. The commenter reasoned that because the agency was considering whether to adopt a permanent exemption for the Tongass, the agency may not take any action that tends to prejudice the choice of alternatives on that decision unless reviewed in a separately sufficient, stand-alone EIS. One commenter suggested that the effort the agency might put into preparing site-specific EISs for timber sales in roadless areas under this final rule might prejudice the decision on the advance notice of proposed rulemaking. Others viewed the proposed rule as an emergency rule that has not been adequately justified by the Forest Service, and recommended action be delayed until the permanent exemption is resolved.

Response: The decision to adopt the proposed rule as final is supported by the environmental analysis presented in the roadless rule FEIS, which considered in detail the alternative of exempting the Tongass from the prohibitions of the roadless rule, as well as the analysis and disclosure of alternative management regimes for roadless lands presented in the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan EIS and the 2003 Supplemental EIS. The Department has determined that no additional environmental analysis is warranted. The Supplemental Information Report documenting that decision is available on the World Wide Web/Internet at http://www.roadless.fs.fed.us. In any event, the temporary rules on the Tongass and the proposal set forth in the advance notice of proposed rulemaking are separate and have separate utility. The July 15, 2003, advance notice of proposed rulemaking sought comment on whether both forests in Alaska should be exempted permanently from the prohibitions of the roadless rule. This final rule has separate utility in temporarily preventing socioeconomic dislocation in Southeast Alaska while protecting forest resources, regardless of whether the agency ultimately decides to exempt both national forests from the prohibitions of the roadless rule on a permanent basis.

Promulgating this final rule would not prejudice the ultimate decision on the advance notice of proposed rulemaking. An action prejudices the ultimate decision on a proposal when it tends to determine subsequent development or limit alternatives. The preparation of EISs does neither.

Finally, this final rule is not an emergency rule. All the requirements and procedures for public notice and comment established by the Administrative Procedure Act for Federal rulemaking have been met with the publication of the proposed rule with request for comment and with the subsequent publication of this final rule. Emergency rulemaking involves the promulgation of a rule without Start Printed Page 75144providing for notice and public comment prior to adoption, when conditions warrant immediate action. That is not the case with this final rule.

Alternatives Considered

The alternatives considered in making this decision are the Tongass National Forest Alternatives identified in the November 2000 FEIS for the roadless rule, as further described in the rule's record of decision (66 FR 3262). These include the Tongass Not Exempt, Tongass Exempt, Tongass Deferred, and Tongass Selected Areas alternatives. The Tongass Not Exempt Alternative was selected by the Department as set out in the final roadless rule in January 2001, with mitigation explained in that record of decision. The Tongass Exempt Alternative would not apply the prohibitions of the roadless rule to the Tongass. Under the Tongass Deferred Alternative, the decision whether to apply the prohibitions of the roadless rule to the Tongass would be made in 2004 as part of the 5-year review of the Tongass Forest Plan. Under the Tongass Selected Areas Alternative, the prohibitions on road construction and reconstruction would apply only to certain land use designations, where commercial timber harvest would not be allowed by the forest plan. These areas comprise approximately 80 percent of the land in inventoried roadless areas on the Tongass.

The Environmentally Preferable Alternative

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the agency is required to identify the environmentally preferable alternative (40 CFR 1505.2(b)). This is interpreted to mean the alternative that would cause the least damage to the biological and physical components of the environment, and which best protects, preserves, and enhances historic, cultural, and natural resources (Council on Environmental Quality, Forty Most Asked Questions Concerning CEQ's National Environmental Policy Act Regulations, 46 FR 18026).

The Department concurs in the assessment described in the January 12, 2001, roadless rule record of decision (66 FR 3263) that the environmentally preferable alternative is the portion of Alternative 3 of the roadless rule FEIS combined with the Tongass Not Exempt Alternative, which would apply the roadless rule's prohibitions to the Tongass without delay.

Record of Decision Summary

For the reasons identified in this preamble, the Department has decided to select the Tongass Exempt Alternative described in the roadless rule FEIS, until the Department promulgates a final rule concerning the application of the roadless rule within the State of Alaska, to which the agency sought public comments in the July 15, 2003, second advance notice of proposed rulemaking (68 FR 41864). Until such time, the Department is amending paragraph (d) of § 294.14 of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule set out at 36 CFR part 294 to exempt the Tongass National Forest from prohibitions against timber harvest, road construction, and reconstruction in inventoried roadless areas.

The Tongass Not Exempt Alternative (identified as the environmentally preferable alternative in the previous section) is not selected because the Department now believes that, considered together, the abundance of roadless values on the Tongass, the protection of roadless values included in the Tongass Forest Plan, and the socioeconomic costs and hardships to local communities of applying the roadless rule's prohibitions to the Tongass, outweigh any additional potential long-term ecological benefits; and therefore, warrant treating the Tongass differently from the national forests outside of Alaska.

The Tongass Deferred Alternative is not selected because there is no reason to delay a decision until 2004. On the contrary, a decision is needed now to reduce uncertainty about future timber supplies, which will enable the private sector to make investment decisions needed to prevent further job losses and economic hardship in local communities in Southeast Alaska.

The Tongass Selected Areas Alternative is not selected because it also would “be of considerable consequence at local levels where the timber industry is a cornerstone of the local economy and where the Forest Service has a strong presence,” as stated in the roadless rule's record of decision. While these adverse socioeconomic consequences would be less than those under the Tongass Not Exempt Alternative, the roadless rule's record of decision states, “For most resources, the effects of this alternative would probably not be noticeably different from those under the Tongass Exempt Alternative.” Accordingly, there is no noticeable environmental benefit to selecting the Tongass Selected Areas Alternative over the Tongass Exempt Alternative that would justify the additional socioeconomic costs.

This decision reflects the facts, as displayed in the FEIS for the roadless rule and the FEIS for the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan that roadless values are plentiful on the Tongass and are well protected by the Tongass Forest Plan. The minor risk of the loss of such values is outweighed by the more certain socioeconomic costs of applying the roadless rule's prohibitions to the Tongass. Imposing those costs on the local communities of Southeast Alaska is unwarranted.

Regulatory Certifications

Regulatory Impact

This final rule has been reviewed under USDA procedures and Executive Order (E.O.) 12866, Regulatory Planning and Review. It has been determined that this is not an economically significant rule. This final rule will not have an annual effect of $100 million or more on the economy nor adversely affect productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health or safety, nor State or local governments. This final rule will not interfere with an action taken or planned by another agency. Finally, this action will not alter the budgetary impact of entitlements, grants, user fees, or loan programs or the rights and obligations of recipients of such programs. However, because this final rule raises novel legal or policy issues arising from legal mandates or the President's priorities, it has been designated as significant and, therefore, is subject to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) review in accordance with the principles set forth in E.O. 12866.

A cost-benefit analysis has been conducted on the impact of this final rule and incorporates by reference the detailed regulatory impact analysis prepared for the January 12, 2001, roadless rule, which included the Tongass Exempt Alternative. Much of this analysis was discussed and disclosed in the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) for the roadless rule. A review of the data and information from the original analysis and the information disclosed in the FEIS found that it is still relevant, pertinent, and sufficient in regard to exempting the Tongass from the application of the roadless rule. As documented in the Supplemental Information Report, the Department has concluded that no new information exists today that would significantly alter the results of the original analysis.

Moreover, this final rule has been considered in light of E.O. 13272 regarding proper consideration of small entities and the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996 (SBREFA), which amended the Regulatory Flexibility Act (5 U.S.C. 601 et seq.). A final regulatory flexibility Start Printed Page 75145analysis conducted on the roadless rule included the effects associated with the Tongass National Forest. The agency solicited comments on the regulatory flexibility analysis for the roadless rule. Although numerous comments were provided that indicated a concern about the roadless rule's impacts on small entities, only a small portion provided data documentation on their status as a small entity and the likely effects of the roadless rule. In many cases, the agency was unable to determine the effects quantitatively, based on comments on the regulatory flexibility analysis. However, all of the businesses in Southeast Alaska engaged in timber harvest and processing of Tongass timber are small businesses. Therefore, this final rule would be expected to have future positive impacts on the small entities in Southeast Alaska due to the increased opportunity to remain viable in the marketplace. This opportunity would be reduced if the prohibitions in the roadless rule are applied to the Tongass.

Therefore, based on the final regulatory flexibility analysis conducted for the roadless rule, which is available electronically on the World Wide Web/Internet on the Forest Service Roadless Area Conservation Web site at http://www.roadless.fs.fed.us, a small entities flexibility assessment has been made for this final rule. It has been determined that this action will not have a significant negative economic impact on a substantial number of small entities as defined by SBREFA. This final rule will not impose record keeping requirements; will not affect small entities' competitive position in relation to large entities; and will not affect small entities' cash flow, liquidity, or ability to remain in the market.

Environmental Impact

A draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) was prepared in May 2000 and a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) was prepared in November 2000 in association with promulgation of the roadless area conservation rule (January 12, 2001 (66 FR 3244). The DEIS and FEIS examined in detail sets of Tongass-specific alternatives. In the DEIS, the agency considered alternatives which would not have applied the rule's prohibitions to the Tongass National Forest, but would have required that the agency make a determination as part of the 5-year plan to review whether to prohibit road construction in unroaded portions of inventoried roadless areas. In the FEIS, the Department identified the Tongass Not Exempt as the Preferred Alternative, which would have treated the Tongass National Forest the same as all other national forests, but would have delayed implementation of the rule's prohibitions until April 2004. This delay would have served as a social and economic mitigation measure by providing a transition period for communities most affected by changes in management of inventoried roadless areas in the Tongass. In the final rule published on January 12, 2001, however, the Department selected the Tongass Not Exempt Alternative without any provision for delayed implementation. Therefore, the rule's prohibition applied immediately to inventoried roadless areas on the Tongass, but the rule also allowed road construction, road reconstruction, and the cutting, sale, and removal of timber from inventoried roadless areas on the Tongass where a notice of availability for a DEIS for such activities was published in the Federal Register prior to January 12, 2001.

In February 2003, in compliance with a district court's order in Sierra Club v. Rey (D. Alaska), the Forest Service issued a record of decision and a supplemental environmental impact Statement (SEIS) to the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan that examined the site-specific wilderness and non-wilderness values of the inventoried roadless areas on the Forest as part of the forest planning process. The February 2003 ROD readopted the 1997 Tongass Forest Plan with non-significant amendments as the current forest plan. Congress has prohibited administrative or judicial review of the February 2003 ROD. Section 335 of the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Act provides that the ROD for the 2003 SEIS for the 1997 Tongass Land Management Plan shall not be reviewed under any Forest Service administrative appeal process, and its adequacy shall not be subject to judicial review by any court in the United States.

Because the 2000 FEIS for the roadless rule included an alternative to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the provisions of the roadless rule, the decision to adopt this final rule may be based on the FEIS, as long as there are no significant changed circumstances or new information relevant to environmental concerns bearing on the proposed action or its impacts that would warrant additional environmental impact analysis. The Forest Service reviewed the circumstances related to this rulemaking and any new information made available since the FEIS was completed; including the SEIS and public comments received on the proposed rule, and documented the results in a Supplemental Information Report (SIR), dated October 2003. The agency concluded—and the Department agrees—that no significant new circumstances or information exist, and that no additional environmental analysis is warranted. The SIR and the FEIS are available on the World Wide Web/Internet on the Forest Service Roadless Area Conservation Web site at http://www.roadless.fs.fed.us. The Tongass Forest Plan is available at http://www.fs.fed.us/​r10/​tlmp, and the 2003 SEIS is available at http://www.tongass-seis.net/​.

No Takings Implications

This final rule has been analyzed in accordance with the principles and criteria contained in Executive Order 12360, and it has been determined that the final rule does not pose the risk of a taking of private property, as the rule is limited to temporarily exempting the applicability of the roadless rule to the Tongass National Forest.

Energy Effects

This final rule has been analyzed under Executive Order 13211, Actions Concerning Regulations That Significantly Affect Energy Supply, Distribution, or Use. It has been determined that this final rule does not constitute a significant energy action as defined in the Executive order.

Civil Justice Reform

This final rule has been reviewed under Executive Order 12988, Civil Justice Reform. After adoption of this final rule, (1) all State and local laws and regulations that conflict with this rule or that would impede full implementation of this rule will be preempted; (2) no retroactive effect will be given to this final rule; and (3) this final rule would not require the use of administrative proceedings before parties could file suit in court challenging its provisions.

Unfunded Mandates

Pursuant to Title II of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (2 U.S.C. 1531-1538), which the President signed into law on March 22, 1995, the Department has assessed the effects of this final rule on State, local, and Tribal governments and the private sector. This final rule does not compel the expenditure of $100 million or more by any State, local, or Tribal government, or anyone in the private sector. Therefore, a statement under section 202 of the act is not required.Start Printed Page 75146

Federalism

The Department has considered this final rule under the requirements of Executive Order 13132, Federalism. The agency has made an assessment that the rule conforms with the federalism principles set out in this Executive order; would not impose any compliance costs on the States; and would not have substantial direct effects on the States, on the relationship between the national government and the States, or on the distribution of power and responsibilities among the various levels of government. Based on a review of the comments received on the proposed rule, the Department has determined that no additional consultation is needed with State and local governments prior to adopting this final rule, because virtually all comments received from State and local governments supported the proposed rule.

Consultation and Coordination With Indian Tribal Governments

This final rule has Tribal implications as defined by Executive Order 13175, Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments. Forest Service line officers in the field have contacted Tribes to ensure their awareness of this rulemaking, provide an overview of this final rule, and conduct government-to-government dialog with interested Tribes. A letter from the Alaska Regional Forester (Region 10) was sent on July 15, 2003, to Tribal officials via e-mail notifying them that the proposed rule to temporarily exempt the Tongass from the prohibitions of the roadless rule was published in the Federal Register that same day. A follow up informational meeting was requested and held with Sitka Tribal officials. One comment was received on the proposed rule from the Metlakatla Indian Community regarding the catastrophic economic and social losses due to the shutdown of the Tongass was in reference to the roadless rule. This final rule to temporarily exempt the Tongass from the prohibitions of the roadless rule would potentially reduce the social and economic impacts the Tribe noted. Therefore, the Department has determined that there could be substantial future direct effects to one or more Tribes, and that these effects are anticipated to be positive.

Controlling Paperwork Burdens on the Public

This final rule does not contain any record keeping or reporting requirements, or other information collection requirements as defined in 5 CFR part 1320, and therefore imposes no paperwork burden on the public. Accordingly, the review provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (44 U.S.C. 3501, et seq.) and implementing regulations at 5 CFR part 1320 do not apply.

Government Paperwork Elimination Act Compliance

The Department of Agriculture is committed to compliance with the Government Paperwork Elimination Act (44 U.S.C 3504), which requires Government agencies to provide the public the option of submitting information or transacting business electronically to the maximum extent possible.

Start List of Subjects

List of Subjects in 36 CFR Part 294

End List of Subjects Start Amendment Part

Therefore, for the reasons set forth in the preamble, the Department of Agriculture is amending part 294 of Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations as follows:

End Amendment Part Start Part

PART 294—SPECIAL AREAS

Subpart B—Protection of Inventoried Roadless Areas

End Part Start Amendment Part

1. The authority citation for subpart B continues to read as follows:

End Amendment Part Start Authority

Authority: 16 U.S.C. 472, 529, 551, 1608, 1613; 23 U.S.C. 201, 205.

End Authority Start Amendment Part

2. Revise paragraph (d) of § 294.14 to read as follows:

End Amendment Part
Scope and applicability.
* * * * *

(d) Until the USDA promulgates a final rule concerning application of this subpart within the State of Alaska [to which the agency originally sought public comments in the July 15, 2003, second advance notice of proposed rulemaking (68 FR 41864)], this subpart does not apply to road construction, road reconstruction, or the cutting, sale, or removal of timber in inventoried roadless areas on the Tongass National Forest.

* * * * *
Start Signature

Dated: December 23, 2003.

David P. Tenny,

Deputy Under Secretary, Natural Resources and Environment.

End Signature End Supplemental Information

[FR Doc. 03-32077 Filed 12-23-03; 4:47 pm]

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