Biden to Restore Protections for America's Largest National Forest

The Biden administration plans to reverse a Trump-era decision to allow development in the world’s largest temperate rainforest.

Beautiful later afternoon light bathes the winter forest in the Tongass National Forest.

Carlos Rojas / Getty Images

At 16.7 million acres, Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is America’s largest national forest and the world’s largest surviving temperate rainforest. With its enormous footprint, however, come enormous challenges—not the least of which is protecting it from industrial exploitation and development.

So great is that challenge that in 2019, conservationists suffered a major defeat by former President Donald Trump, who approved plans to open for logging and other types of development more than half of the protected lands within Tongass. Now, those plans have been neutralized by the Biden administration, which this month announced steps to restore and strengthen safeguards that were eliminated by the previous administration.

Specifically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced two moves designed to bolster environmental protections in and around Tongass. First, USDA will end large-scale old-growth timber sales across the entire national forest; will redirect management resources to support “forest restoration, recreation, and resilience, including for climate, wildlife habitat, and watershed improvement”; and will spend approximately $25 million on projects that will create “sustainable opportunities for economic growth and community well-being.” It will choose the latter in partnership with indigenous communities.

“We look forward to meaningful consultation with tribal governments and Alaska Native corporations, and engaging with local communities, partners, and the state to prioritize management and investments in the region that reflect a holistic approach to the diverse values present in the region,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “This approach will help us chart the path to long-term economic opportunities that are sustainable and reflect Southeast Alaska’s rich cultural heritage and magnificent natural resources.”

Second, USDA this summer will take initial steps toward reinstating “roadless rule” protections enacted in 2001 by former President Bill Clinton but removed by Trump. With few exceptions, such protections prohibit the construction of roads on large swathes of public land, where transportation infrastructure might facilitate logging, mining, and other industrial activities at the expense of forests and wildlife. Trump exempted Tongass from those longstanding protections at the request of Republican lawmakers in Alaska, who have long wanted to relax environmental regulations in favor of economic opportunities that they say will boost employment in America’s largest state.

Among those lawmakers is Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who called USDA’s new actions a “policy flip-flop” motivated by “narrow election results and political donations from environmental groups.” “Our state’s southeast communities need fundamental access, like roads, and the economic and resource development opportunities roads provide,” Dunleavy said in a statement. “Every Alaskan deserves the chance to work. We have the resources. We just need the opportunity.”

What Dunleavy decried, environmental groups praised. “Old-growth forests are critical to addressing climate change, so restoring roadless protections to the Tongass is critical,” Andy Moderow, Alaska director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. “The Tongass alone stores more than 1.5 billion metric tons of [carbon dioxide equivalent] and sequesters an additional 10 million metric tons each year … With Alaska experiencing climate impacts more acutely than most, we shouldn’t be discussing the continued clearcutting of a natural climate solution that exists right in our own backyard.”

Echoed Sierra Club Alaska Chapter Director Andrea Feniger: “Southeast Alaska communities can breathe a little easier today knowing that the Tongass National Forest … will remain protected. President Biden’s action to restore and strengthen safeguards for the Tongass is a victory for these communities and for our climate. The Tongass is a critical tool in the fight against climate change, and the Biden administration’s actions to protect our forest wildlands ensures that it will continue to be part of the climate solution for years to come.”

The USDA’s defense of the Tongass follows a June announcement by the Biden administration that it would suspend oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a drilling program that was approved by the Trump administration in January. In a case of mixed messaging, however, the administration a week prior took an opposite stance when it defended a Trump-era decision to approve a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope—the Willow prospect in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which according to the Anchorage Daily News could produce up to 160,000 barrels of oil per day and approximately 600 million barrels of oil over the course of three decades.

“The Willow project is the poster child for the type of massive fossil fuel development that must be avoided today if we’re to avoid the worst climate impacts down the road,” Moderow’s colleague, Alaska Wilderness League Acting Executive Director Kristen Miller, said in a reaction to the Willow decision. “We stand behind the work this administration is doing to address climate change and prioritize environmental justice, promote clean energy, and undo the damage of the past four years, so the decision to defend a Trump oil and gas project that ignored the concerns of local indigenous communities and absolutely failed to adequately address risks to our climate future is incredibly disappointing.”

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