Sun shines through the canopy in the Tongass National Forest. (Photo by Brian Logan/U.S. Forest Service)
The Biden administration will ban new logging roads and most development in much of Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday.
The decision, which repeals a 2020 USDA action under the Trump administration, continues a quarter-century of action and counter-action over development in the region, which contains the world’s largest temperate coastal rainforest and is home to more than 72,000 people.
“As our nation’s largest national forest and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, the Tongass National Forest is key to conserving biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a written 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.”
Robert Venables, executive director of Southeast Conference, a regional economic development organization, noted that the Trump administration’s decision never had an effect, so the result of Wednesday’s announcement is to keep in place a status quo that has existed since 2001.
“There really hasn’t been any operational change in years and years and years,” he said. “It’s a non-consequential event when the reality of forest management is concerned.”
An official notice will be published Friday in the Federal Register.
When published, the decision is expected to apply the USDA’s national “roadless rule” to the Tongass, prohibiting most kinds of development.
The state of Alaska, hydroelectric power companies, mining interests and logging companies have argued that the rule should not apply and successfully convinced the Trump administration to rescind it in the Tongass.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy criticized Wednesday’s decision.
“This decision is a huge loss for Alaskans, and it’s yet another way the Biden administration is singling out Alaska,” he said in a written statement. “Alaskans deserve access to the resources that the Tongass provides — jobs, renewable energy resources, and tourism, not a government plan that treats human beings within a working forest like an invasive species.”
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also criticized the move.
Environmental organizations, as well as some fishing, tourism and Native groups, praised the announcement.
Many of them had filed a lawsuit in December 2020 to keep the roadless rule in place and testified in favor of its restoration after the USDA declared in 2021 that it would “repeal or replace” the Trump administration’s action.
“The Tongass Roadless Rule is important to everyone,” said President Joel Jackson of the Organized Village of Kake, one of the plaintiffs in the 2020 lawsuit, in a written statement. “The old-growth timber is a carbon sink, one of the best in the world. It’s important to OUR WAY OF LIFE — the streams, salmon, deer, and all the forest animals and plants.”
Linda Behnken, commercial fisherman and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said in a written statement that her organization was “thrilled and relieved” by Wednesday’s announcement, and Meredith Trainor, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said her group is celebrating the announcement.
“Today’s win is the work of hundreds and thousands of hands and voices, all lifted up to protect this most precious place that we love — the Tongass National Forest,” she said in a written statement.
Officials at the governor’s office and in the Alaska Department of Law did not immediately answer questions asking whether the state of Alaska will sue to overturn this week’s announcement.
The state conducted a protracted and unsuccessful legal campaign against the prior implementation of the roadless rule, and Dunleavy has already asked the state Legislature for an additional $10 million to fund lawsuits against the federal government.
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