The Biden era of climate-aware forest policy
One of the most egregious acts of the previous administration’s public lands agenda was the October decision to revoke protections for 9 million acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests.
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that, among other things, identified the Trump administration’s elimination of the Tongass roadless rule as one of the actions that would be reviewed.
The Roadless Rule is one of America’s hallmark conservation policies and safeguards pristine and near-pristine forests in 40 states, from Alaska to New Mexico. These are areas with remarkable ecological value that could be quickly degraded by development, including the construction of roads. This historic policy celebrated its 20th anniversary in January.
In the Tongass, the rule safeguarded ancient trees, critical salmon habitat and Indigenous homelands, enjoying widespread support among Southeast Alaska residents — including commercial fishermen — and from a majority of Americans polled.
Biden’s climate plan calls for permanently restoring protection of areas impacted by the previous administration’s short-sighted attack on federal lands and waters. To this end, Biden has already signed a series of executive orders focused on climate policy, recommitting the U.S. to the Paris Agreement and requiring that federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture (DOA) and the Forest Service, address climate change.
As the nation’s largest carbon sink — sequestering 8 percent of all annual U.S. carbon emissions — reinstating Tongass protections is essential to the Biden climate agenda, which calls for protecting 30 percent of U.S. land and ocean by 2030. As the U.S. works to update our commitments under the Paris Agreement into a formalized document, known as our Nationally Determined Contribution, the Tongass must be included as a natural pathway for carbon reductions alongside the other actions we have planned. Doing so will send a signal that protecting our critical natural resources isn’t just good for the flora and fauna but also for our global climate stability.
These protections have been well-supported from the start and the motivations for rolling them back under the previous administration were fueled only by a few corporate special interests at the expense of us all. The roadless rule attracted more than 1.6 million comments that endorsed protecting our most pristine areas in national forests from commercial logging and new roads. Indigenous communities living in the Tongass for millennia reminded us of why this land is so important to them with their filing of a petition to create a Traditional Homelands Conservation Rule to identify and protect the traditional and customary uses of Indigenous peoples in the Tongass.
The previous administration’s decision, if left standing, would overturn a decade-long effort on the part of local community leaders and the Forest Service to phase out old-growth logging in roadless areas of the Tongass and supply future timber needs with abundant smaller, second-growth trees. Logging roads built deep into many national forests carry costs that far outweigh their benefits. Roadbuilding increases the chance that these ancient trees will fall victim to costly, subsidized commercial timber harvest and it destroys critical wildlife habitat and degrades watersheds, critical to clean drinking water.
Economically, revoking the protections makes little sense. Timber provides less than 1 percent of[ southeastern Alaska’s jobs, compared to 26 percent for fishing and tourism combined. Further, over the past four decades, timber sales in the Tongass have cost American taxpayers $1.96 billion while generating only $227 million in revenue — a loss of more than $40 million a year — according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Two decades later, we stand proud of the roadless conservation policy. It significantly reduced the federal government’s negative balance sheet from timber operations while providing land managers with the flexibility they needed to adapt to changing circumstances. And it recognized that habitat, watershed protection and carbon stores have long-term value far greater than that provided by money-losing timber sales.
Decisions that affect Americans’ shared land should reflect those values and be informed by strong science. Restoring roadless protections to the Tongass is how we keep the forest protected. As a new day dawns on the White House, we call on Biden to reinstate roadless protections in the Tongass and ensure a sound future for all those who depend on this rare and pristine ecosystem for their wellbeing and livelihoods.
Mike Dombeck was chief of the United States Forest Service from 1997 to 2001. Jim Furnish was the agency’s deputy chief from 1999 to 2002.