The Trump administration has lifted environmental protection in the largest forest in the United States, opening up more than three million hectares in Tongass National Forest to logging despite opposition from environmental groups and Indigenous leaders.
In an official notice of the decision on Thursday, the US Department of Agriculture said Tongass would be exempt from a 2001 federal law known as the “Roadless Rule” that prohibits timber harvest and road construction in specific areas.
The Tongass – sometimes referred to as “America’s Amazon” – spans nearly seven million hectares (17 million acres) across southeast Alaska, including the capital, Juneau, and is home to diverse wildlife and trees. It is considered the largest contiguous temperate rainforest in the world.
Alaska’s Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, welcomed the Trump administration’s decision, which opens up 55 percent of the forest (3.9 million hectares/9.6 million acres) to timber harvest activities and road-building.
“This will help build community resilience and support economic recovery in a region that’s been hit hard by the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism and other industries relying on responsible use of our natural resources and beauty,” Dunleavy said in a statement.
Big win for Alaska today. The job-killing roadless rule in the Tongass National Forest is no more. Thanks to @SecretarySonny & @forestservice for working with AK to fix this injustice that for too long harmed the economy of our Southeast communities. https://t.co/LdTEzBwWfs
— Governor Mike Dunleavy (@GovDunleavy) October 29, 2020
The US Department of Agriculture said lifting the roadless rule could be done “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”.
Environmental groups and Indigenous leaders say the move endangers the diverse ecosystem, however, and they have slammed US President Donald Trump for what they view as another rollback of environmental protections in the country.
Trump has faced rebuke for years over his administration’s environmental policies and for rejecting the need to act to mitigate the climate crisis.
In August, the Trump administration opened up part of another key ecological site in Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to oil and gas exploration.
Ken Rait, project director for public lands and rivers conservation at Pew Charitable Trusts, said in a statement that there is “no scientific or economic” basis to allow logging in Tongass.
“This decision is a disservice to Alaskans and other Americans who value these ancient trees and the lives and livelihoods they support. The Tongass is a global gem. Once these pristine forests are gone, they’re gone forever,” Rait said.
The Alaska Wilderness League also said the decision could, among other negative effects, threaten the fishing industry, which relies on the rivers and streams of the forest for its salmon harvesting.
“The Tongass is America’s Amazon. Its lush islands, towering trees, glacial fjords and estuaries support some of the highest concentrations of bald eagles, brown bears and wild salmon anywhere in the world,” the group’s executive director, Adam Kolton, said in a statement.
“Taking an axe to old-growth protections for the Tongass is among the most reckless and irresponsible of the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks.”
Indigenous groups have also raised alarm over the Trump administration’s plan to open the national forest up to logging.
In an opinion piece published by Alaska media outlets in October 2019, Richard Chalyee Eesh Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said Indigenous governments had not been listened to in the decision-making process.
Peterson said tribes in southeast Alaska are united in their relationship to the place now known as Tongass. “Our health and well-being, identity and worldview are intricately woven into the fabric that is our homeland,” he wrote.
“Southeast Alaska tribes believe the requisite environmental process has been arbitrarily and capriciously rushed to decision despite the magnitude of potential adverse impacts that lifting these protections could be expected to impose upon our homelands.”