Story at a glance
- Road development and logging is expected to be legal in the Tongass National Forest.
- The forest is home to diverse wildlife and plays a large role in removing carbon from the atmosphere.
The U.S. Forest Service is expected to repeal a rule on Thursday that would remove protections from 9 million acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, allowing loggers and construction crews to have access to lands inhabited by rare old-growth trees.
This move would free up about 168,000 acres of tree-inhabited land for development.
Known colloquially as the Roadless Rule, the move was enacted in 2001 to protect old-growth trees from deforestation during the Clinton Administration and established prohibitions on road construction, reconstruction, and timber harvesting across 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless lands within the National Forest System.
Old-growth forests are a category of forests that are at least 150 years old and contain a diverse ecosystem. Research also indicates that old-growth forests can store large amounts of carbon, helping remove it from the atmosphere and prevent climate change.
While carving into the Tongass National Forest could be lucrative for loggers and developers, it would negatively affect an old and diverse ecosystem, environmentalists say.
In a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency explains that local planning would be sufficient to conserve important parts of the Tongass environment without the Roadless Rule in place.
“The USDA and Forest Service believe that both roadless area conservation and other multiple-use values with important local socio-economic consequences are meaningfully addressed through local and regional forest planning on the Tongass, without the 2001 Roadless Rule prohibitions on timber harvest and road construction/reconstruction.”
Environmental advocates believe that the judgement is to support logging companies.
“Make no mistake, this decision is all about opening up old-growth forest to clear-cut logging in an effort to prop up an outdated and highly-subsidized logging industry," said Austin Williams, Alaska Director of Law and Policy for Trout Unlimited, a coldwater fishery conservation organization. “Renewable energy, community infrastructure, mining, and transportation projects would have proceeded under any of the six alternatives considered. This decision only makes sense if your primary goal is to clear cut more old-growth forest.”
During the proposal’s comment period, about 96 percent of commentators indicated they did not want to revoke the Roadless Rule, citing concerns over the harm industrialization could bring to the forest’s flora and fauna.
They specifically noted that the justification for old-growth logging as necessary until young-growth timber can sufficiently grow is faulty.
According to conservation network Audubon Alaska, the Tongass Forest is home to animal species like grizzly bears, wolves, Sitka black-tailed deer and birds like bald eagles, Northern goshawks and marbled murrelets.
It also produced more salmon than any other national forest and is the ancestral home to the indigenous Tlingit, Haida and Tshimsian Peoples.