More than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is roadless, undeveloped wilderness. Since 2001, the forest has been protected under the “Roadless Rule,” but today the United States Department of Agriculture announced it would exempt Tongass National Forest from those protections and open new areas to logging, Becky Bohrer reports for the Associated Press.
Tongass is the United States’ largest national forest and the world’s largest temperate rainforest, Coral Davenport reports for the New York Times. At almost 17 million acres, Tongass National Forest could cover Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Its vast landscape of centuries-old cedar, hemlock and Sitka spruce trees absorbs a significant amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and scientists have long identified Tongass as key habitat for a range of animal species, per the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin.
About 9.3 million acres of Tongass National Forest were protected under the “Roadless Rule” enacted by former President Bill Clinton. But for the last two years, lawmakers have sought to exempt it from the rule, despite pushback from conservation groups and public comments that overwhelmingly favored keeping the rule in place, Eric Stone reports for KTOO Public Media.
“While tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Tongass is the lungs of North America,” says Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project, to the Washington Post. “It’s America’s last climate sanctuary.”
Former President Theodore Roosevelt established Tongass National Forest by executive order in 1907, and Congress affirmed the decision with legislation in 1909. The forest has the densest population of brown bears in the U.S., per the Washington Post, and the largest known concentration of bald eagles, Cassidy Randall reports for the Guardian. Tongass is also home to Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goats, and a subspecies of timber wolf called the Alexander Archipelago wolf. Some of Tongass’ trees are between 300 and 1,000 years old.
One-fifth of the forest was already designated for commercial development, and a third was protected as a national wilderness area. Much of the undeveloped land in Tongass is rock, ice or muskeg, a type of cold-climate swamp.
“The final rule will make an additional 188,000 forested acres available for timber harvest with the majority characterized as old-growth timber,” according to the Forest Service rule in the Federal Register.
The USDA said in a notice on Wednesday that the policy change for Tongass “can be made without major adverse impacts to the recreation, tourism, and fishing industries, while providing benefits to the timber and mining industries, increasing opportunities for community infrastructure, and eliminating unnecessary regulations,” per the Associated Press.
The “Roadless Rule” had banned road construction and timber harvesting in designated parts of Tongass National Forest. The rule not only preserved wilderness areas, but also saved the country the cost of servicing a complex system of remote roads, says project director of the Pew Charitable Trust Ken Rait to the Guardian.
Nearly 96 percent of comments submitted during the U.S. Forest Service’s review period opposed the exemption, and two weeks ago, all five Alaska Native tribal nations withdrew from their role as cooperating agencies, reports KTOO.
“The decision to roll back the roadless rule on the Tongass was made in spite of, not in support of, southeast Alaskans and our communities,” says Meredith Trainor, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council to the Associated Press.
The USDA has not yet approved any specific work in the newly opened areas of Tongass National Forest, reports the Associated Press, and any proposed projects will need to comply with federal environmental review.