Biden restores roadless rule to much of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

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The Biden administration on Wednesday restored protections to more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, protecting one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests from new roads and logging.

Tongass is a relatively pristine expanse in the southeast of the state that has been at the center of a long struggle between environmentalists and Alaskan timber interests. Heads of State had persuaded the Trump administration in 2020 to open it up to new roads and logging, rolling back Clinton-era protections, in a bid to spur economic development.

Biden administration officials said Wednesday that the forest is vital for both wildlife habitat – especially fish – and the fight against climate change. The administration’s decision, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will repeal Alaska’s 2020 no-road rule, again making it illegal for logging companies to build roads and cut and remove of wood on more than 9.3 million acres of forest.

“The Tongass National Forest is essential for conserving biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “Restoring roadless protections listens to the voices of the tribal nations and people of Southeast Alaska while recognizing the importance of fishing and tourism to the region’s economy.”

The rule is expected to be published in the Federal Register on Friday and will take effect immediately, a department spokesperson said.

The forest is known for its abundant salmon runs, towering fjords and ancient trees, which are essential for trapping and storing carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change, the department said. Tongass trees absorb at least 8% of all the carbon stored in all of the Lower 48 forests.

The Alaska governor and Republicans in his congressional delegation have previously criticized the proposal, first announced in November 2021. They said it would hurt the lumber industry.

“This decision is a huge loss for Alaskans,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a tweet Wednesday. “Alaskans deserve access to the resources Tongass provides – jobs, renewable energy resources and tourism, not a government plan that treats humans in a working forest like an invasive species.”

This tree has been here for 500 years. Will it be sold for $17,500?

But advocates for greater protection and the Biden administration have pointed out that the forest plays a huge role in supporting Alaska’s fishing industry, a far bigger employer in the state than the fishing industry. wood. Scientists have identified the Tongass as an ecological oasis providing key habitat for wild Pacific salmon and trout.

The restoration of the protections was popular with Alaska Native leaders, conservationists and tour operators, who said preserving the region’s remaining wilderness landscapes would support the state’s economy in the long term. The Forest Service has received about 112,000 comment papers, most in favor of restoring roadless protections, the Agriculture Department said Wednesday.

The Tongass habitat is also crucial for the Sitka black-tailed deer, among many other species. It has the highest density of brown bears in North America, and some of its trees are between 300 and 1,000 years old and as tall as 17-story buildings.

“The Tongass Roadless rule is important to everyone,” said Joel Jackson, president of the organized village of Kake, which sits on the edge of the forest on an island south of the capital, Juneau.

“Ancient wood is a carbon sink, one of the best in the world,” Jackson said in a statement. “It’s important to OUR WAY OF LIFE – the streams, the salmon, the deer and all the animals and plants in the forest.”