By Coral Davenport © The New York Times Co.
WASHINGTON » The Biden administration plans to restore environmental protections to the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests, that had been stripped away by former President Donald Trump.
The administration intends to “repeal or replace” a Trump-era rule that opened about 9 million acres, or more than half of the forest, to logging and road construction, according to a White House document published Friday.
The Tongass, in southeastern Alaska, is home to more than 400 species of wildlife, fish and shellfish, including nesting bald eagles, moose and the world’s highest concentration of black bears. Among its snowy peaks, fjords and rushing rivers are stands of red and yellow cedar and Western hemlock as well as Sitka spruce trees at least 800 years old.
The forest also plays a key role in combating climate change. One of the world’s largest carbon sinks, its trees and soil absorb and store millions of tons of carbon dioxide that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere, where it would trap heat and add to global warming.
The national forest had been protected from logging, mining and other development since 2001 by a policy known as the roadless rule, which prevented road building necessary for those other activities.
But last year, Trump lifted the rule for a large section of Tongass, pleasing Alaskan lawmakers who had lobbied for the change for years. The move was assailed by environmentalists and the majority of commenters who formally registered opinions with the government.
“USDA 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,” said Matt Herrick, a spokesperson for the U.S. Agriculture Department, the parent agency of the Forest Service. “We recognize the vital role the forest and its inventoried roadless areas play in communities, and in the economy and culture of southeast Alaska, as well as for climate resilience. Future decisions about the role of the Tongass National Forest should continue to reflect the best interests of Alaskans and the country as a whole.”
The administration will publish its intent to revise the rule formally by August, with the details of the final plan expected within the following two years.
Alaskan senators and governors have long maintained that lifting the roadless rule protections in their state would provide a sorely needed economic boost.
Among them is Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, who has argued that sections of Tongass can be responsibly developed in ways that would not necessarily lead to the loss of major swaths of forest. She has attacked the roadless rule as a “one size fits all” regulation that hurts the timber industry as well as mining, transportation and energy.
It is not clear whether the Biden administration intends to replace the roadless rule protections in the Tongass or whether it would replace protections in some areas while leaving others open to economic development.
Murkowski is also a key player in efforts to negotiate a bipartisan agreement on a sweeping infrastructure bill, and the White House has been careful to avoid antagonizing her. Already this year, President Joe Biden — seeking to strike a balance between his vows to fight climate change and protect the environment, while also securing the support of Murkowski for a signature legislative effort — has alternated between policies that approve fossil fuel drilling in some parts of Alaska while banning it in others.
Murkowski’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Mike Dunleavy, the Republican governor of Alaska, wrote on Twitter, “Disappointed in the @POTUS latest suppression of AK economic opportunity. From tourism to timber, Alaska’s great Tongass National Forest holds much opportunity for Alaskans but the federal government wishes to see Alaskans suffer at the lack of jobs and prosperity.”
“We will use every tool available to push back on the latest imposition,” he added.
Environmentalists praised the move.
“We applaud this first step in what we hope will be a swift process to restore full roadless rule protections to the Tongass National Forest,” said Ellen Montgomery, director of public lands campaigns for Environment America. “The Trump administration’s rollbacks were an attack on the Tongass, which is a priceless treasure and a beacon of nature. Many trees in the Tongass are older than United States, and we must keep them standing tall because the forest serves as a vital bulwark against climate change. It also provides an irreplaceable home for our wildlife.”