The Biden administration has overturned a Trump-era rollback of logging and road-building restrictions in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, reimposing curbs that tribal and environmental groups have reacted to with glee but Alaska’s governor and other local politicians have panned as a blow to the region’s economic development.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Jan. 25 that it issued a final rule that repeals the 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule, reinstating economic activity restrictions over nearly 9.4 million acres of roadless areas of what is the largest forest in the United States.
USDA spokesman Larry Moore said the new rule is expected to be published in the Federal Register on Jan. 27, which would give it legal effect and formally repeal the decision that exempted the Tongass from the so-called roadless rule.
With the new rule, inventoried roadless areas of the Tongass have been returned to management under the 2001 Roadless Rule, prohibiting road construction, reconstruction, and timber harvest, with limited exceptions.
Alaska’s political leaders have long viewed the roadless rule for the Tongass as burdensome and limiting of economic opportunities.
“This decision is a huge loss for Alaskans,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a 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.”
Under the administration of then-President Donald Trump, the roadless designation was removed from the 9.4 million acres of the Tongass, which as the nation’s largest national forest covers more than 17 million acres.
A hallmark of the Trump administration was the removal of onerous restrictions on economic activity and resource extraction, with the former president being a longtime advocate of domestic energy production as a bulwark of national security.
After President Joe Biden took office, he pledged to review Trump-era rules, and in late 2021, the USDA announced it was starting the process of repealing the Tongass exemption.
“Protecting the Tongass will support watershed protection, climate benefits, and ecosystem health and protect areas important for jobs and community well-being—and it is directly responsive to input from Tribal Nations,” Homer Wilkes, USDA undersecretary for natural resources and environment, said in a statement.
The forest lies within the traditional homelands of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people. The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska issued a statement praising the Biden administration’s move.
“The USDA has rectified a critical issue for our people who are most impacted by decisions affecting the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass was wrongly exempted from the Roadless Rule and without meaningful tribal consultation,” the council said in a statement on social media.
Environmental groups also reacted to the repeal with approval. In a series of statements, many pointed to the role of the old-growth forests of the Tongass as a store of carbon and as being instrumental in tackling the so-called climate crisis, a characterization disputed by many experts but one that the Biden administration has embraced and has enacted policies to fight.
“Protecting the Tongass National Forest is an important step in recognizing the role of our forests in fighting the biodiversity and climate crises,” Patrick Lavin, Alaska policy adviser at Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.
“The Tongass is often referred to as ‘our nation’s climate forest’ for its ability to store carbon and protect us from the worst impacts of climate change,” said Alex Craven, senior campaign representative at Sierra Club.
Alaskan officials insist that there are numerous environmental safeguards in place that ensure a balance between conservation and economic development.
The State of Alaska Department of Law said in a statement that the USDA’s decision is flawed and ignores the fact that the Tongass already contains more inventoried roadless areas (IRA) than any other forest in the National Forest System.
Alaska’s “unique and targeted exemption to the sweeping national Roadless Rule was a successful example of public policy allowing appropriate access in a small fraction of the immense Tongass,” Brent Goodrum, deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, said in a statement.
The state’s Department of Law argued that repealing the roadless rule not only limits economic opportunities for Alaskans who live and work in the Tongass region, but also hampers the supply of critical essential minerals that are key to the Biden administration’s so-called clean energy transition.
“Continued access would have enhanced subsistence, energy security, recreation, transportation, resource development, and public safety in a multiple-use forest for the direct benefit of the people of Southeast Alaska,” Goodrum said.
The state’s Department of Law said that the Trump-era 2020 Alaska Roadless Rule has appropriately managed the Tongass’s important roadless areas at the forest plan level.