The Biden administration plans to restore environmental protections to Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests, which was destroyed by former President Donald J. Trump.
The administration intends to “repeal or replace” a Trump-era rule that opened up about nine million acres, or more than half of the forest, to logging and construction of roads, according to a White House document released on Friday.
Tongass in Southeast Alaska is home to more than 400 species of wildlife, fish, and crustaceans, including bald eagles, moose, and the world’s highest concentration of black bears. Among its snow-capped peaks, fjords and tumultuous rivers are stands of red and yellow cedar and western hemlock as well as Sitka spruce trees that are at least 800 years old.
The forest also plays a key role in the fight against climate change. One of the world’s largest carbon sinks, its trees and soil absorb and store millions of tons of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, where it would trap heat and contribute to global warming.
The National Forest had been protected from logging, mining and other development since 2001 by a policy known as the No-Road Rule, which prevented the construction of roads necessary for these other activities.
But last year, Mr Trump lifted the rule for much of Tongass, pleasing Alaskan lawmakers who had been pushing for change for years. This decision has been beset by environmentalists and the majority of commentators who have officially registered their views with the government.
“The USDA acknowledges that the Trump administration’s decision on the no-roads rule in Alaska was controversial and did not match the overwhelming majority of public opinion across the country and among the Alaskans,” said Matt Herrick, spokesperson for the US Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service’s parent agency. “We recognize the vital role that the forest and its areas without inventoried roads play in the communities, and in the economy and culture of Southeast Alaska, as well as in climate resilience. Future decisions regarding the role of the Tongass National Forest should continue to reflect the best interests of Alaskans and the country as a whole. “
The administration will officially publish its intention to revise the rule by August, with final plan details expected within two years.
Alaska’s senators and governors have long argued that lifting the road-less protections in their state would provide a much-needed economic boost.
Among them is Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, who has argued in the past that sections of Tongass can be responsibly developed in a way that would not necessarily result in the loss of large tracts of forest. She attacked the no-road rule as a “one-size-fits-all” regulation that harms the timber industry as well as mining, transportation and energy.
It is not clear whether the Biden administration intends to completely replace the protections in the No-Road Rule in the Tongass or if it would replace the protections in some areas while leaving others open for economic development.
Ms Murkowski is also a key player in efforts to negotiate a bipartisan deal on a sweeping infrastructure bill and the White House has been careful to avoid upsetting her. Already this year, Mr Biden – seeking to strike a balance between his pledges to tackle climate change and protect the environment, while also securing Ms Murkowski’s support for a signature legislative effort – has alternated between policies who approve of fossil fuel drilling in parts of Alaska while banning it in others.
Ms Murkowski’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Mike Dunleavy, Republican Governor of Alaska, wrote on Twitter, “Disappointed by the @POTUS last suppression of AK business opportunity. From tourism to lumber, Alaska’s great Tongass National Forest offers many opportunities for Alaskans, but the federal government wants Alaskans to suffer from a lack of jobs and prosperity.
“We will use all the tools available to push back the last imposition,” he added.
Environmentalists welcomed this decision.
“We applaud this first step in what we hope will be a swift process to restore full road-free rule protections in Tongass National Forest,” said Ellen Montgomery, director of public lands campaigns for Environment America. “The Trump administration’s setbacks were an attack on Tongass, which is a priceless treasure and beacon of nature. Many Tongass trees are older than the United States and we must keep them upright as the forest serves as a vital bulwark against climate change. It also provides an irreplaceable home for our wildlife.
Several climatologists, working with a group called the Tongass Coalition, have called on the Biden administration to create a strategic national carbon reserve by placing permanent federal protections on all large trees and mature forests on federal lands. They noted that such a proposal could also help Biden meet his goal of retaining 30% of public land by 2030.
“In order for us to slow the uncontrollable climate chaos down, we need to do two things: get rid of fossil fuels as quickly as possible and store atmospheric carbon,” said Dominick DellaSala, scientist at the Earth Island Institute, an environmental organization at non-profit. organization. “The forests are the best at it and Tongass is the champion. But it should come from the president. This is something he could do to quickly advance the climate change needle. “
In a series of recent decisions regarding mining, drilling and development in Alaska, Mr. Biden has straddled the line between conservation and development.
Last month, Home Secretary Deb Haaland called Ms. Murkowski and the rest of the Alaska Congressional delegation to let them know that she would approve a multibillion-dollar ConocoPhillips oil drilling project in the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve. The project, which Ms Haaland opposed when she served in Congress, is expected to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day for 30 years, stalling decades of new fossil fuel development and winning praise from lawmakers in the world. ‘Alaska.
But two weeks later, the Biden administration suspended leases to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move Murkowski called “outrageous.”