Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, answers questions in a studio at KTOO on August 13, 2019, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

A decision by the Trump administration over exempting the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule is expected soon. That’s according to Sen. Lisa Murkowski who in an interview with CoastAlaska has hardened her stance on the hot-button issue.

“I, very early on, went to the Trump administration and said as we look to the state of Alaska and the application of the Roadless Rule, we have to be able to have a plan that is specific to us,” she said Tuesday.

The head of the U.S. Forest Service was directed by the Secretary of Agriculture last summer to initiate an Alaska-specific rule for the Tongass.

Last month Murkowski brought Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen to Southeast Alaska for an unannounced tour of Tongass National Forest. The top federal agency official reportedly met with pro-timber interests and Alaska Native tribes, some of whom have been critical of the process.

A 90-day comment period last fall received 144,000 comments, the majority expressed opposition to rolling back protections. Ninety percent of the comments were form letters or petitions.

Even so, according to the Forest Service’s own summary, only a small minority supported a full exemption from the Roadless Rule for Alaska — which is what Sen. Murkowski is now advocating for. 

“I think complete exemption from the Roadless is what is best suited for Alaska,” Murkowski said.

That’s a stronger position than she’d taken last year when a possible Roadless Rule rollback was first announced.

“It’s not a Roadless exemption,” Murkowski told KCAW in September 2018.

But nearly a year has now passed and she says a full exemption is back on the table.

“We’re encouraging the Secretary of Agriculture as he is moving forward with these decisions to include a full exemption as one of the preferred alternatives,” Murkowski said Tuesday. “At this moment in time, we’re still waiting. In fairness, I thought we would already have it by mid-August.”

The next step is for the Forest Service to release a draft environmental impact statement. That could include a full exemption or some hybrid rule for the Tongass.

Another public comment period would be held before a final report is released in 2020. 

Conservationists are concerned that exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule would open up large tracts to commercial old growth logging.