Why New Protections Don’t Eliminate Threats to the Tongass National Forest News-thread


Last week, the Biden administration restored protections for the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, reversing a Trump-era initiative that opened up millions of acres for road construction and logging. The Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska covers 16.7 million acres, an area larger than West Virginia, and is home to ancient cedar and Sitka fir. Bald eagles soar above the dense forest canopy. Deer, elk, and black bears roam wild, and salmon swim in forest streams.

Because the Tongass is a huge carbon sink, store 8 percent of the total carbon in US forests, they are often called the “lungs of the country.” Locally, Alaska Native tribes depend on the forest to hunt deer and elk, forage for medicine, and fish for salmon. “It is very important that we keep [the forest] intact,” said Joel Jackson, president of the Kake Organized Village, a federally recognized tribe located at the edge of the forest.

But the abundance of mature trees has made the Tongass a longtime target of the logging industry. A controversial Clinton-era policy called the Roadless Rule outlawed logging, road construction, and other extractive industrial activities in the Tongass and other national forests. The rule has been weakened by legal challenges and revisions by subsequent presidential administrations, some of them more favorable to logging interests. Most recently, the Trump administration repeated the roadless rule for more than 9 million acres of the Tongass.

Those protections were reinstated Wednesday by the US Department of Agriculture.. The move was welcomed by environmental groups, conservationists and Alaska Native tribal communities.

“It’s incredibly important to have these kinds of common sense protections,” said Austin Williams, Alaska law and policy director for the nonprofit conservation group Trout Unlimited. The Roadless Rule is “central to ensuring these remote areas are managed in a way that is smart, forward thinking and responsive to the economic values ​​of the region,” he added.

However, even with the Roadless Rule firmly in place, the threats to the Tongass continue. An investigation conducted by Grist in partnership with CoastAlaska and Earthrise Media last year found that vast swaths of forest continue to be cleared through the use of federally approved land exchanges. Congress can approve the exchange of land protected by the federal government for private land. As a result, 88,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest have been transferred to logging interest groups since 2015. The analysis also found that 63 percent of forest area cleared between 2001 and 2014 was transferred off federal property. Restoring roadless rule does little to prevent federal land swaps that could open up the Tongass to logging.

The Tongass is also recovering from the effects of global warming. Jackson said that in recent years the region has received very little rain and has experienced drought — an unusual phenomenon for a tropical rainforest. When it snows, it melts within a few days, and the dry conditions have allowed the hemlock sawfly, which feeds on the foliage, to thrive.

“The cold usually kills the small insects that feed on a tree,” Jackson said. “It’s too hot”.

Restoring the highway-free rule protections for the Tongass is part of a larger Biden administration stewardship strategy for Southeast Alaska. In 2021, the The Department of Agriculture announced a four-prong plan end large-scale logging in the Tongass and instead focus on forest restoration, recreation and resiliency. It also invests money in local communities to identify ways to conserve natural resources while increasing economic opportunities in the region.

The plan also prioritizes engaging in meaningful consultation with tribes, a marked departure from practices under the Trump administration, according to Jackson. In years past, administration officials would meet with tribal representatives, listen to their concerns, but not take their comments into consideration.

“They were just here to check the box,” Jackson said, referring to the federal government’s obligation to consult with tribes. “But now that has changed. They take more time and try to listen.”


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