Much like Pebble Mine and the fight to protect Bristol Bay, the Tongass National Forest is a salmon powerhouse in need of permanent protections. Over the past several years, the Tongass National Forest became a semi-national news story. On October 29, 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has jurisdiction over the U.S. Forest Service and National Forests, announced the removal of Roadless Rule protections for 9 million acres of Tongass National Forest. The repeal sparked controversy, as the Tongass is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, immense carbon sink, largest national Forest in the United States (17 million acres), and thriving ecosystem. Today, however, United States government is working to reinstate the Roadless Rule protections.
21 years ago, the U.S. Forest Service established the Roadless Rule, which would bar development and logging on nearly 60 million acres of inventoried public lands. Despite significant logging operations decades ago, the Tongass still supports an amazing natural ecosystem. 13 percent of all salmon harvested on the Pacific Rim originate from the Tongass’ 17,000 miles of rivers and streams. Additionally, the Tongass’ habitats support an incredibly diverse ecosystem of wild trout and steelhead, eagles, deer, bears and hundreds of other species.
“The Tongass is one of the last, best places for wild salmon left in North America and a globally significant resource for slowing the impacts of climate change,” said Chris Wood, President and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “Reinstating the roadless rule and prioritizing restoration is an investment in the forest’s most valuable and lasting resources.”
The push for reinstating Roadless Rule protections for the Tongass seeks to prevent old-growth logging operations and road construction from resuming, prioritizing the sustainable use of natural resources. While the Roadless Rule does provide narrow exceptions, the aversion to developing roads and infrastructure in the Tongass is well founded. Once the infrastructure is in place, removing it is nearly impossible and opens the door to further industrial development. The Tongass’ ecosystem, including one of the few remaining salmon and steelhead strongholds, is delicate and benefits more people and when it is protected.
A healthy Tongass fuels vibrant fishing and tourism economies, providing some 26 percent of the jobs in the region. Salmon and trout fishing contribute some $1 billion to the regional economy annually, and tourism to the region also generates more than $1 billion annually. Preserving the Tongass in its natural state, or as close to it, is a smart move economically, and was supported by “more than 95 percent of commenters” during the 2020 Roadless Rule withdrawal.
“The real value of the Tongass is in its abundant fish and wildlife, its cultural resources, and in its beautiful scenery and wild landscapes,” said Austin Williams, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska director of law and policy.
On the other hand, the Tongass’ Roadless Rule does have its share of opposition, including Alaska’s elected politicians. For example, on November 19, 2021, when the U.S. Department of of Agriculture announced it would restore Roadless Rule protections, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy criticized the decision. “With today’s news, the federal government in Washington made clear southeast Alaska is going back to the environmental policy of the 1990s,” said Governor Dunleavy. Alaska’s Congressional representatives “have consistently opposed restrictions on logging” in the Tongass, as well. The Tongass has been a controversial, political issue for decades.
So, back to today and the issue at hand–restoring Roadless Rule protections for Tongass National Forest. Back over the summer the Biden White House announced it would begin the process to reinstate Roadless Rule Protections for the Tongass. Several months later, on November 19, 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a proposed rule to restore Roadless protections for the Tongass, opening a 60-day public comment period.
That public comment period will close on January 24, 2022 and will influence the final decision–or at least it’s supposed to. Trout Unlimited Alaska, through its American Salmon Forest initiative, is spearheading this effort for the fishing community. The group created a quick and easy portal to comment on the rule change and, hopefully, advocate for the restoration of Roadless Rule protections.
If this comment period is anything like the 2020 comment period for withdrawing Roadless Rule protections, the public will overwhelmingly support Roadless Rule protections for the Tongass. Further, commenters will include a wide range of Alaskan sport and commercial fishermen, native tribes, advocates of sustainable natural resource use, and concerned individuals throughout the country. All these individuals want to see Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and its wildlife and natural productivity preserved for decades to come.