After years of political disputes, Congressional Hearings, sky-rocketing public opposition, and court cases, the Trump administration is officially removing protections for the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, and it has been a political football for decades. Today, President Trump exempted the Tongass National Forest from its Roadless Rule protections, opening up 9.3 million acres of undisturbed and intact temperate rainforest and streams to clear-cutting and habitat fragmentation.
Nearly 20 years ago, President Bill Clinton protected millions of acres within the National Forest System using the Roadless Rule, which prevented logging and road construction. His January rulemaking spurred numerous legal challenges. Most of the court challenges were rejected, leaving these lands intact and habitable to a plethora of fish and wildlife. Removing Roadless Rule protections from the Tongass National Forest will immediately threaten the sprawling biodiversity, one of North America’s largest carbon sinks, the region’s sustainable economy, and infringe on the lifecycles of salmon and steelhead.
Back in the summer of 2019, Tongass blinked on President Trump’s radar. Alaska’s Congressional delegation along with now-embattled Governor Dunleavy pressed the administration to exempt the Tongass from Roadless Rule protections. They claimed roads and infrastructure development were needed to jump-start logging and other industries for the region’s people and economy. However, the economic strength of logging remains to be seen. “Make no mistake, this decision is all about opening up old-growth forest to clear-cut logging in an effort to prop up an outdated and highly-subsidized logging industry,” said Austin Williams, Alaska Director of Law and Policy for Trout Unlimited.
Fishing and tourism, on the other hand, are both sustainable and employ 26 percent of the region, compared to logging’s 1 percent. Logging in Alaska actually costs taxpayers millions due to a federal mandate that companies must profit from any timber sale: “Since fiscal year 1980, the [US Forest Service] has lost approximately $1.7 billion, or $44 million per year on average,” according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. In contrast, “the combined economic impact of commercial, sport and subsistence salmon fishing, as well as hatchery operations, in SE Alaska, was estimated at $986 million,” in 2007 according to the US Forest Service.
“Some of the best salmon and steelhead streams in the world are in the Tongass, and many of them are in roadless areas that are completely untouched by logging and roads. When you start clear-cutting large swaths of old-growth forest and construct a spiderweb of roads along salmon streams, you create erosion that pollutes the water, cause sediment to smother spawning areas, block access to important spawning and rearing areas that are essential to young fish, and create an eye sore that ruins the wild scenery. You might not notice the impacts right away, but they’ll catch up to you over time, which is what’s happened in the Pacific Northwest where salmon and steelhead runs are a fraction of their historic numbers,” said Williams.
The Tongass is one of the world’s greatest salmon producers and, unsurprisingly, has one of the highest densities of brown bears anywhere on the planet. Thousands of streams carve through the 16.7 million acre temperate rain forest–many of which are undocumented and don’t enjoy stand-alone protections for the streams or the anadromous fish that may rely on them.
The resistance to the Trump Administration’s rollback stems from the fact that logging and development in this region will have profound effects on this vibrant ecosystem and the economically-viable fishing and tourism economies. Clear-cutting in the Tongass old-growth forests, which is well within the cards, would overnight degrade stream and habitat quality, due to rising stream temperatures, sedimentation, and erosion. Not to mention the construction of a road system, which would fracture habitat and inevitably impede migrating salmonids.
“The Tongass produces more salmon than all other national forests combined, and supports fishing and tourism industries that account for more than 26 percent of local jobs in the region.” Yet, time and time again, sustainable, productive industries are threatened by the heavily lobbied extractive projects. Alaskans do have a right to profit off their resources but removing protections for its other–and more sustainable and economically-viable–resources should not be the tradeoff.
The Department of Agriculture’s decision to remove Roadless Rule protections ignored the alternatives that took a moderate approach to timber planning in the Tongass. Instead, the Trump Administration opted to remove all roadless acres. Further, the rulemaking ignored 96 percent of the public comments opposing the rollback as well as tribal consultation. “All five Alaska Native tribal nations withdrew as cooperating agencies in the process two weeks ago, after the Forest Service published its blueprint for opening up the entire Tongass to development,” wrote The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin.
In recent months, the President and his surrogates have tried to improve their environmental and conservation records. Legislatively, there have been major wins for conservation, such as the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act. But within the executive branch, where regulation can circumvent Congress, this administration has carried out a systematic and sustained attack on our public lands and waters. Millions and millions of public lands have been recently leased to the oil and gas industry, and even more acres of public lands have lost environmental protections. The President cannot claim that, “Every day of my presidency, we will fight for a cleaner environment and a better quality of life for every one of our great citizens,” while at the same time dismantling the very laws ensuring a cleaner environment and simultaneously giving oil and gas the kitchen sink.
Today, October 29th 2020, 9.3 million acres of Tongass National Forest are now effectively open to logging and road construction. This ecosystem produces a quarter of the West Coast’s salmon harvest and a billion dollar economic impact for Southeast Alaska, but this administration seeks to further threaten this fishery and our environment.