Trump strips protections for Tongass forest, opening it to logging
The Trump administration on Wednesday lifted protections for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, a move that will expand logging in the nation’s largest old-growth forest.
A notice posted in the Federal Register exempts the forest from the so-called roadless rule, a Clinton-era prohibition on road construction and timber harvesting on many Forest Service lands.
Under the Trump administration’s changes, the nearly 9.4 million acres of inventoried roadless land in the Tongass would once again be considered suitable timberlands.
It’s a major blow to environmental efforts to protect one of the world’s largest temperate rainforests — the Forest Service found in 2016 that it stores more carbon than any other forest in the country.
“Government decisions should be informed by public input and made on the basis of science — this decision is neither. This decision ignored public input and this decision turns a blind eye to science,” Ken Rait, director of the public lands and rivers conservation project at Pew Charitable Trusts, told The Hill.
Rait pointed to comments from the fishing industry arguing the sediment runoff from road construction would harm the salmon industry that operates in the region.
Courts have already questioned the Trump administration’s plans for the forest. In March, a U.S. district court judge wrote the agency failed to fully consider the environmental impacts of a project that opened logging in more than 1.8 million acres of the Tongass over the next 15 years.
But in Wednesday’s Record of Decision, the federal government characterized its action as only having “modest difference in potential environmental consequences” compared to not opening up the forest to logging.
“Although 9.4 million acres would no longer be subject to the 2001 Roadless Rule with the final rule, only 186,000 more acres would become available for timber production, and road construction is estimated to increase Tongass-wide from 994 miles in the no-action alternative to 1,043 miles in the final rule over the next 100 years,” it said.
A final environmental impact statement, issued last month, similarly appeared to express little concern about the potential for more carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere as a result of logging.
“Many management activities initially remove carbon from the forest ecosystem, but they can also result in long-term maintenance or increases in forest carbon uptake and storage by improving forest health and resilience to various types of stressors,” it said.
After that assessment was issued, a group of more than 60 Democratic lawmakers asked the administration to reconsider, arguing that it “failed to fully analyze the impacts of an Alaska Roadless Exemption.”
“Scientists have repeatedly urged maintaining protection for this largely intact temperate rainforest. The Tongass would rightly be managed as America’s climate forest because of the Tongass’ critical capacity for carbon storage and climate change mitigation,” they wrote. “There is no justification for such an abrupt departure from the long-standing and successful application of the Roadless Rule in the Tongass.”
The decision to open the area for logging follows a push by Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources, which had asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt the Tongass from the rule, saying it would “create jobs and prosperity for our rural communities located in the Tongass National Forest.”
But Rait pointed to research from Taxpayers for Common Sense that found that in 2019 the Forest Service lost roughly $16 million on its timber program in the Tongass, where there is currently some limited logging.
“It costs more money for taxpayers to have a timber program on the Tongass than the Forest Service receives in receipts for those timber sales,” he said.
Environmental groups have already pledged to fight the move in court.
“Preserving the Tongass is a matter of survival. A standing healthy forest is absolutely essential to the subsistence survival of Indigenous peoples. It’s also essential for mitigating the climate crisis that threatens us all. We will continue to fight for the Tongass and those who depend on it. We will challenge the lifting of restrictions against logging in the forest’s roadless areas at every turn,” the Sierra Club said in a statement.
Opening up the forest to logging comes as the Trump administration has separately expressed interest in planting trees, recently setting up a council to coordinate “interactions” with the World Economic Forum’s “Trillion Trees” initiative.
Jennifer Rokala, the executive director for public lands watchdog group the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement that the move indicates that the president’s support for the initiative is a “sham.”
“Planting saplings will do nothing to help the planet while you’re bulldozing roads and chopping down trees in the largest old growth temperate rainforest in the world and one of America’s last great natural places,” Rokala said.
— Updated at 12:41 p.m.