Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is known as the “lungs of North America.” With 16.7 million acres of temperate rain forest, it offers an ecological oasis where wild salmon, brown bears, bald eagles, and a diverse range of other species flourish. Its old-growth stands of red and yellow cedar, Sitka spruce, and Western hemlock have stood tall for centuries––some trees for over 1,000 years. The Tongass also absorbs more carbon than any other national forest. Yet on Oct. 28, the Trump administration announced they would open up more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging and other forms of development.
More specifically, this move will exempt 9.3 million acres of Tongass National Forest from a 2001 “roadless rule” that prohibited road construction, road re-construction, and timber harvesting in designated areas of national forests. In addition to the exemption, the Trump administration will make an additional 188,000 acres available for timber harvest––most of which is old growth timber.
The announcement has been met with strong opposition.
During the U.S. Forest Service’s environmental review period, 96 percent of submitted comments opposed lifting the existing safeguards, while only one percent supported the move. Additionally, six southeast Alaskan tribes and six southeast Alaskan city councils submitted resolutions that opposed lifting protections.
“The Tongass is America’s Amazon,” Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. “This presidentially directed move to gut roadless protections for our nation’s largest and most biologically rich national forest is a calamity for our climate, for wildlife and for the outdoor recreation economy of southeast Alaska.”
Southeast Alaska has been hit hard by the pandemic and the loss of cruise ship tourism dealt a serious blow to the economy. On top of that, fisheries have been struggling after seafood prices took a hit due to the global economic crisis.
Supporters of President Trump’s move argue it will provide a much needed boost for the struggling local economy. But while fishing and tourism account for 26 percent of regional employment, according to the Southeast Conference, timber only makes up one percent of local employment. Furthermore, a Taxpayer for Common Sense analysis found that the current Tongass timber program has cost U.S. taxpayers roughly $1.7 billion over the last 40 years.
While the President recently touted his commitment to planting trees through the “One Trillion Trees Initiative,” repealing environmental protections has become a hallmark of the administration. However, legal battles have resulted in many of these orders being blocked, including a court ruling that struck down a proposed 1.8 million-acre timber sale on the Tongass’s Prince of Wales Island.
Environmental groups have already announced they will challenge this latest repeal of protections in court, so stay tuned.