U.S., Alaska seek law opening state forests to roads

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(Reuters) – Alaska and the U.S. government are seeking new regulations that could open more of the state’s forests to roads and development to drive its economy, the U.S. National Forest Service said on Thursday.

President Donald Trump has vowed to open greater sections of public land to energy and industry.

Environmentalists have said that roads in certain areas could harm Alaska’s salmon industry by eroding protection of old-growth forests and rivers and streams where the fish breed.

Currently in Alaska, 93 percent of National Forest System lands are designated roadless areas or wilderness where roads cannot be built, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The talks followed a request by Republican U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski for Alaska to be exempted from a 2001 national statute outlawing road construction in certain types of forests.

“The national forests in Alaska should be working forests for all industries,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement issued by the U.S. National Forest Service on Thursday. It said he aimed to sign a state rule within the next 18 months.

Creation of an Alaska-specific law would determine which areas now designated as roadless would require a different “management designation to further Alaska’s economic development,” the statement said.

Environmentalists have said that Alaska’s Republican leadership is seeking to exempt 15 million acres of the Chugach and Tongass rainforests from the 2001 law.

The non-profit Wilderness Society said on Thursday that the Tongass contains thousands of miles of salmon-producing streams that account for 25 percent of all salmon harvested in the northeastern Pacific Ocean.

It said that this forest had been heavily logged before the 2001 law and that it made little economic sense to open it again to timber production at the risk of harming the state’s fishing industry.

Some 220 natural resource scientists urged the U.S. Congress in January not to eliminate the so-called roadless rule on the Tongass and Chugach forests, saying they were North America’s largest “carbon sink” countering the effects of global warming.

Alaska’s Republican Governor Bill Walker said in the National Forest Service statement that development of a state rule on road building would take into consideration the views of local residents.

Reporting By Andrew Hay Editing by Bill Tarrant

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