Biden bans roads, logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it has banned logging and road construction in the roughly 9 million acres of Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska, seeking to resolve a 20-year dispute over the fate of North America’s largest temperate rainforest.

The new rule restores protections to pristine Alaska backcountry, first enacted in 2001 but rescinded by President Donald J. Trump in 2020.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the effort will protect cedars, hemlocks and sitka spruces — many of which are more than 800 years old — that provide critical habitat for 400 species of wildlife, including bald eagles, salmon and The highest concentration of black bears on the planet. Towering trees also play a vital role in fighting climate change. According to the government, they store more than 10 percent of the carbon accumulated in all U.S. national forests.

In addition to banning road construction—the first step toward new logging—the US Forest Service’s plan also ends the large-scale logging of older species of wood across 16 million acres of forest.

“As our nation’s largest national forest and the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, the Tongass National Forest is key to protecting biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis,” said Mr. Vilsack said in a statement. Restoring the road ban “listens to the voices of tribal nations and the people of southeastern Alaska, while recognizing the importance of fishing and tourism to the region’s economy,” he said.

Tongass National Forest, dubbed “America’s Amazon,” is also home to rare earth minerals, making it a site of intense focus for state and local leaders who say rare earths should be mined to create jobs and boost Alaska’s economy.

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska called the rule “overburdened,” accusing the Biden administration of hurting the state’s economy and saying he would retaliate by blocking the presidential nominee.

“I have repeatedly begged Secretary Vilsack to work with us and not lock down our state,” Mr Cook said. Sullivan said in a statement. “My message to the hardworking Alaskans who are being suppressed and completely ignored by this administration: I will do everything in my power to oppose this decision, including through my Senate oversight responsibilities and retaining relevant nominees as much as possible.”

The state’s Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a statement that the final rule “is a huge loss for Alaskans” and accused the Biden administration of unfairly treating his state. “Alaskans deserve what Tongass has to offer — jobs, renewable energy, and tourism — not government plans to treat humans in working forests as invasive species,” he wrote.

Jim Clark, an attorney for Juneau who has worked with industry and state officials to exempt Tongass from protections that apply to much of the national forest system, has argued to the Biden administration that some of the economic benefits of road construction are vital and could Achieved without damaging the ecology. He noted that the national forest is about the size of West Virginia and can accommodate what he says is limited infrastructure.

In 2008, the US Geological Survey discovered 148 mineral deposits in the area. State leaders argue that an updated survey should be completed before any new restrictions are imposed so that the government and the public are aware of the full economic potential that may be lost.

The number of lumber industry-related jobs in southeastern Alaska near the Tongass National Forest has fallen from 3,543 in 1991 to 312 in 2022, the lowest number of lumber employment on record, according to the Southeast Conference of Regional Economic Development Organizations Level.

Years of restrictions imposed by Democrats have driven lumber companies out of the region, lumber industry executives say.

Tessa Axelson, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, which represents lumber companies in southeast Alaska, said the industry was “disappointed, but not surprised” by the rule. “Our local economy cannot survive without investment from small businesses such as those in the forest products industry. This announcement further threatens the already unstable environment for our operators,” she said.

Democrats and Republicans have been fighting for the Tongass for decades, with environmentalists, some indigenous tribes and Democrats fighting to preserve the forest while Republicans, lumber companies and mining executives fought to develop it And debate endlessly.

A group of tribal leaders in southeastern Alaska issued a statement applauding the rule. They said it signaled the government’s commitment “to address the climate crisis and finally to hear from the tribes in the south-east that will continue to be most affected by climate change.”

The decision is the latest in a bid by the Biden administration to reverse a series of actions by Trump. Trump aims to pave the way for fossil fuel development and mineral extraction on public lands. Last month, the Biden administration expanded protections to rivers, swamps and waterways that the Trump administration is trying to abolish. The White House also issued new directives to assess greenhouse gas emissions in federal environmental reviews, replacing guidelines withdrawn by Trump. trump card.

Conservationists and several Alaska Native groups applauded Tongass’ decision. They argue that allowing road construction could destroy a vast wilderness of snowcapped peaks, rushing rivers and pristine native forests.

“This is great news for forests, salmon, wildlife and the people who depend on intact ecosystems for their way of life and livelihood,” Kate Glover, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, said in a statement.

Forest Service officials said the agency received about 112,000 comments from tribes, rural communities and others affected by the rule and found that the majority wanted a ban on roads in the forest.

While the Tongass National Forest comprises 9 percent of the total land in the National Forest System, it holds about 16 percent of the roadless forest area. Most of them are virgin forests.

Dominick DellaSala, a conservation biologist who studies Tongass, called it “remarkable,” noting that most of the older trees in the Lower 48 were felled decades ago.

Tongass is “a place where eagles are as numerous as house sparrows, salmon clog streams with peak-hour traffic, and wolves feed on salmon carcasses,” he said. All species “do best in unlogged forests,” he said.

The new plan also includes $25 million in federal spending for local sustainable development in Alaska, for projects that improve forest health.

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