Last week, the White House announced two major decisions with great implications for fly fishing and aquatic ecosystems. The Biden administration is expected to reinstate Roadless Rule protections in the Tongass National Forest. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its intent to restore Clean Water Act protections for wetlands and small streams. Both regulations became an early target of the previous administration. Restoring these protections is good step toward ensuring the long term health of our nation’s aquatic ecosystems.

The Clean Water Act

Enacted in 1972, the Clean Water Act established a federal framework to regulate pollutant discharges into “waters of the United States.” Exactly which “waters” are covered by the law proved open to interpretation, legally unsettled, and a topic of political  debate. In 2015, the Obama administration promulgated the “Clean Water Rule.” This rulemaking expanded the scope of the law, drawing lawsuits and federal injunctions. Ultimately, President Trump replaced the “Clean Water Rule” with the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule” in 2020.

This interpretation of the Clean Water Act removed “protections against discharges of pollution into rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands across the country,” by narrowing the scope of “waters of the United States.” Conservation and sporting groups came out against the rule. “Trout Unlimited opposed the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule because it dropped decades-long protections nationwide for “ephemeral” streams, which flow only after rainfall. The 2020 rule made it easier to pollute and degrade these streams, which provide drinking water, flood protection, outdoor recreation opportunities, and fish habitat.”

Last week, however, the Biden administration announced it would revise the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” reverting to the 2008 interpretation of the law.

2017 AUG 22: A Clean Water Rule rally in downtown Denver, CO.

“After reviewing the Navigable Waters Protection Rule as directed by President Biden, the EPA and Department of the Army have determined that this rule is leading to significant environmental degradation,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “We are committed to establishing a durable definition of ‘waters of the United States’ based on Supreme Court precedent and drawing from the lessons learned from the current and previous regulations, as well as input from a wide array of stakeholders, so we can better protect our nation’s waters, foster economic growth, and support thriving communities.”

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers President and CEO, Land Tawney, added, “American sportsmen and women were leading voices supporting passage of the original Clean Water Act in 1972. We appreciate the need for strong protections of our nation’s waterways that carefully consider the needs and interests of diverse stakeholders. We look forward to working with the administration to ensure that this rulemaking process reflects the input and values of hunters and anglers, outdoor-focused businesses and the citizenry at large.”

The Tongass National Forest

Informally known as America’s Salmon Forest, the Tongass is a national treasure and one of the top salmon producing regions in the world. Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is nearly 17 million acres and is part of the world’s largest temperate rain forest. For nearly twenty years, much of the National Forest enjoyed Roadless Rule protections. In the Tongass, this rule protected important fish and wildlife habitat but also was flexible enough to allow necessary community projects.

Alaska’s Roadless Rule protects the Tongass National Forest, a ‘fish factory.’

The Roadless Rule in the Tongass–and elsewhere–has been a political football since its inception. Ever since President Clinton included the Tongass National Forest in his 2001 Roadless Initiative, controversy followed. The region, however, remained largely protected, despite exhaustive challenges. Then in October 2020, the Trump administration stripped Roadless Rule protections from much of the Tongass National Forest, exposing nearly 9.3 million acres of old-growth forest and salmon habitat to road construction and logging.

That decision drew criticism from dozens of conservation groups and tourism industries. Additionally, the overwhelming majority of public comments opposed repealing the Roadless Rule in the Tongass.

Last week, the Biden administration announced it would “repeal or replace” the Trump administration’s decision. According to the Washington Post, a final rule will be published later this summer. The Post also reached out to the Communications Director at the United States Department of Agriculture–the Agency that oversees the National Forest Service–who said, “[the Department] recognizes the Trump administration’s decision on the Alaska roadless rule was controversial and did not align with the overwhelming majority of public opinion across the country and among Alaskans.”

However, Alaska’s Congressional delegation did not take the announcement well.

In a press release, Senator Lisa Murkowski wrote, “The Trump administration, through the Forest Service and USDA, put considerable work and effort into the final rule and now the Biden administration is literally throwing it all away. We need to end this “yo-yo effect” as the lives of Alaskans who live and work in the Tongass are upended every time we have a new President. This has to end. I will be using every tool at my disposal to fight back on the administration’s latest action. It’s time we move forward, utilizing the Tongass land management plan and all the other applicable environmental laws to guide new projects and activities and provide long overdue regulatory certainty to the region.”

Unnamed stream in Tongass National Forest, Courtesy of Trout Unlimited

Trout Unlimited, a longtime defender of the Tongass National Forest and the Roadless Rule, applauded the announcement.

“We’re glad to see the Forest Service correcting such an obvious wrong,” said Austin Williams, Alaska Legal and Policy Director for Trout Unlimited. “Exempting the Tongass from the roadless rule was short-sighted from the start and opposed by a vast majority of Alaskans. It’s long past time to end clear-cut logging of old-growth forest, which damages important critical fish and wildlife habitat, costs taxpayers many millions of dollars, undercuts tourism and fishing jobs, and hampers our ability to fight climate change.”

For now, we await final language on these decisions. But both announcements appear to be a step in the right direction for healthy fisheries, clean water, and fishing businesses.

Cover picture courtesy of Toby Nolan @t.nolan.imagery.

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