Road construction and timber harvest will be restricted in more than nine million acres of roadless areas in southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the United States Department of Agriculture announced last week.
For nearly two decades, the Tongass, the country’s largest national forest, was protected under a federal policy from 2001 known as the roadless rule, which banned logging and road-building throughout much of the national forest system. In 2020, supported by Alaska political leaders, the Trump administration exempted the Tongass from these restrictions.
The new decision, which took effect Friday, reverses the Trump-era rule and reinstates the former protections in roadless areas.
“The Tongass National Forest is key to conserving biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says in a statement. “Restoring roadless protections listens to the voices of tribal nations and the people of southeast Alaska while recognizing the importance of fishing and tourism to the region’s economy.”
At nearly 17 million acres in area, the Tongass is larger than West Virginia. Together with Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, it makes up the largest intact temperate rainforest on the planet, according to Audubon Alaska.
Within its trees, the Tongass ecosystem hosts 400 species of wildlife, including bald eagles, salmon and black bears. The forest helps combat climate change by soaking up and storing carbon dioxide. But over half of the large-tree forests in the Tongass have been logged. Nationwide, scientists estimate that thanks to logging, agriculture and urban development, only 6 to 14 percent of U.S. forest area remains intact, as Beverly Law, a scientist specializing in forest ecosystems, wrote for the Conversation in 2021.
The Tongass is home of the Tlingit, Haida and Tshimsian peoples, per Audubon Alaska. In a statement, a coalition of eight Southeast Tribal organizations, including the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, supported the restored protections.
“The return of the 2001 Roadless Rule protections signals a commitment from the agency to address the climate crisis and finally listen to the Southeast Tribes that will continue to be most impacted by climate change effects,” says the statement, according to the Anchorage Daily News’ Riley Rogerson.
Law writes in the Conversation that road building can harm plants and animals and let in invasive plants carried by vehicles.
“Having the roadless rule in place is so important, because when you open up a forest like that to roads, it hurts the ecosystem by breaking it up into smaller pieces, and that can cause some really big problems,” Dyani Chapman, state director of the Alaska Environment Research and Policy Center, tells the Anchorage Daily News.
Some state and local leaders do not support the new protections, saying the Tongass should be mined to create jobs and boost the economy, per the New York Times’ Lisa Friedman. The presence of rare earth minerals in the forest makes it an attractive location for mining.
“Alaskans deserve access to the resources that the Tongass provides,” Alaskan Governor Mike Dunleavy said in a tweet last week.
Jim Clark, an attorney who has been working with industry and state officials to keep the forest exempt from the construction and logging restrictions, has said that the state can achieve important economic benefits from road construction without damaging the Tongass due to its vast size, according to the Times.
During a public comment period, the U.S. Forest Service received roughly 112,000 comments, and the majority were in favor of restoring roadless protections, according to the USDA.
“Today’s announcement reflects our continued focus on listening to tribal nations and people in southeast Alaska,” Homer Wilkes, USDA under secretary for natural resources and environment, says in the agency’s statement.
“We are tied to our lands that our ancestors walked on thousands of years ago. We walk these same lands and the land still provides food security—deer, moose, salmon, berries, our medicines,” Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, said in a statement, per Becky Bohrer of the Associated Press. “The old-growth timber plays an important part in keeping all these things coming back year after year; it’s our supermarket year around. And it’s a spiritual place where we go to ground ourselves from time to time.”