By Bruce Lundegren, Assistant Chief Counsel
Given its vast size and many remote locations, it is no wonder that natural resources and labor force issues were central to the Office of Advocacy’s recent Regulatory Reform Roundtable in Anchorage, Alaska. The meeting began with several small businesses expressing concerns about the U.S. Forest Service’s 2001 “roadless” rule, which placed prohibitions on road construction and timber harvesting on millions of acres of land in the National Forest System—including Alaska. These small businesses expressed support for the Forest Service’s proposed Alaska-specific rule. It would apply to the Tongass National Forest and would compel special land management plans to balance Alaska’s economic development with the conservation of roadless areas. The Forest Service is expected to issue a final rule in 2020. Other small businesses complained that their businesses were being hamstrung by land use restrictions in national forests because of permitting delays and duplicative permitting processes. They stated that these barriers were harming tourism and urged that the programs be streamlined and adequately funded. One business owner stated that he wanted to expand his bicycle packing tours on Kenai forest trails, but the permitting process has been closed for years due to funding issues.
As has been the case in many of Advocacy’s regional roundtables, labor force issues and the shortage of qualified workers were priority topics. Many people, including native Alaskans from rural areas, complained that labor laws were impeding their ability to hire qualified workers. Several noted that minimum age requirements for using equipment or operating motor vehicles limited their ability to hire high school age students. One stated that he could only hire young people as laborers because they are prohibited from using power tools. Others complained that Alaska’s generous social benefits were disincentivizing people from working or accepting promotions; some suggested creating a “step down” approach where benefits would be reduced, but not eliminated, if someone took a job. Others noted that drug and opioid use were a widespread problem, and many young people are disqualified because they cannot pass drug tests.
Transportation issues were also a topic of discussion. One attendee said the driver shortage in Alaska was inhibiting his ability to grow his small business. He urged the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to provide greater flexibility in its “hours of service of drivers” rules and recommended that the minimum age for commercial drivers be lowered from 21 to 18.
Broadband deployment was another issue of significant interest. One small business owner urged approval of funding for a dedicated satellite that would provide broadband service throughout Alaska. She said the satellite could be placed in an orbit optimized specifically to serve Alaska, but that current law on rural funding was standing in the way of the project because it would serve more than one locale. She noted that satellites were more preferable than fiber optic cable in earthquake-prone areas like Alaska. A residential construction company complained that the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on lead-based paint testing were overly broad, and should only apply to housing constructed prior to 1978, when lead-based paint was banned.
It was an enthusiastic discussion led by small businesses, trade association representatives, and area Congressional staff members. Attendees expressed appreciation for the opportunity to provide their input and said that they hope these issues can be advanced in a timely fashion.
Advocacy was in Alaska for Regional Regulatory Reform Roundtables July 9-11.
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Bruce Lundegren is an Assistant Chief Counsel for Advocacy whose portfolio includes safety, transportation, and security. Lundegren can be reached at email@example.com.