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Roads & Logging Banned in Tongass National Forest

Biden overturned a Trump ruling that opened the Tongass National Forest up to roadbuilding and logging in 2020.

The Tongass National Forest spans over 17 million acres in Southeast Alaska. Image: Daniel Shumney / Shutterstock

Last month, the Biden administration announced it has banned all road building and logging in the Tongass National Forest, overturning a Trump administration ruling that opened the forest to road development for the first time since 2001.

Black and brown bears walk through the forests in a post-winter slumber, salmon fight their way up roaring streams, and deer elude predators through moss-covered meadows. This is the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rainforest in North America that lies in the Southeast panhandle of Alaska. Spanning over 17 million acres, it is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world.

In 2001, the Clinton administration helped the U.S. Forest Service establish the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to help protect ecological wonderlands like the Tongass National Forest. The rule banned road construction or timber harvest in some regions of the National Forest System to help protect watersheds, wildlands, and wildlife. The Tongass National Forest fell under the rule’s protection.

A brown bear gone fihsin’. Image: Jean Clark / Shutterstock

That all changed in 2020. In one of its last moves before the 2020 election, the Trump administration, along with Alaskan elected officials, retracted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in parts of the Tongass National Forest. The move opened more than 9.3 million acres of forest up to road building and logging.

Last week, the Biden Administration Reinstated the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in the Tongass National Forest, blocking all road development and logging in the area. In a statement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Secretary Tom Vilsack said of the decision’s importance:

“As our nation’s largest national forest and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, the Tongass National Forest is key to conserving biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis.”

Tom Vilsack / U.S. Department of Agriculture
Most forests are considered carbon sinks. Image: Avigator Fortuner / Shutterstock

Alaskan Government Officials Deplored The Move

Alaskan government officials, including Governor Mike Dunleavy, considered the reinstatement of forest protections a setback to the state’s economic development. In a Facebook post, Dunleavy stated:

“This ruling is a huge loss for Alaskans. Alaska deserve access to the resources that the Tongass provides – jobs, renewable energy resources and tourism, not a government plan that treats human being within a working forest like an invasive species.”

Mike Dunelavy / Facebook

Dunleavy’s protest sings a familiar tune. In 2018, Alaska petitioned the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, and then-governor Bill Walker created an advisory committee to review the rule’s impact on Alaska. The advisory committee ultimately recommended the roadless rule be rescinded, referencing the socio-economic impact it’s had on Alaska’s logging industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2020 ruling to rescind the roadless rule used the advisory committee’s justification as a deciding factor in its own ruling, ultimately noting:

“The USDA and Forest Service believe that both roadless area conservation and other multiple-use values with important local socio-economic consequences are meaningfully addressed through local and regional forest planning on the Tongass, without the 2001 Roadless Rule prohibitions on timber harvest and road construction/reconstruction.”

U.S. Department of Agrilcuture / Federal Register
Road construction is considered the first step to forest logging among many conservationists. Image: Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock

While Lisa Friedman reports for the New York Times that “Timber executives said years of restrictions imposed by Democrats have run lumber companies out of the region,” the exact economic impact of those restrictions is unclear.

Data shows that employment in Alaska’s forest industry was rapidly declining in the period leading up to the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, according to a study by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. The timber industry recorded just 312 jobs in 2022.

The rule also set aside $25 million in federal funds for sustainable development in Alaska, to potentially help re-ignite economic growth without relying on the decimation of its forests.

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