The Biden administration has moved to restore protection of old-growth forests in Southeast Alaska’s vast Tongass National Forest, protection that was stripped away in waning months of the Trump regime.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will “repeal or replace” a decision that removed the Tongass from a Clinton-era Roadless Rule that had protected more than nine million acres of the 16.9 million-acre national forest. The national forest, created under Theodore Roosevelt, includes almost all of the Alaska Panhandle.
The Tongass is America’s largest temperate rainforest. It was once given over to supporting two big pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sitka, with a third planned for Juneau. Its ancient forests were sold for a pittance, with the U.S. Forest Service realizing a return of less than five cents on the dollar.
As Timothy Egan wrote in the New York Times, eight hundred year old trees were being sold for the price of a Big Mac.
The tables turned thirty years ago. With the Tongass Timber Reform Act, Congress rolled back an earlier requirement that four hundred and fifty million board feet of forest be made available for clear cutting each year, with an automatic $40 million appropriation to build the roads to “bring the cut out.”
The Ketchikan and Sitka mills, shorn of their corporate welfare, were closed.
Since then, Southeast Alaska has enjoyed a new economy built around tourism, recreation and the abundant salmon runs of such rivers as the Stikine, Taku and Unuk. Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, hundreds of thousands of cruise ship passengers visited Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway each year.
The Trump regime sought to recreate the bad old days. After a meeting between Trump and Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy on Air Force One last year, the Trump controlled USDA enacted a new “rule” that pulled back protections in force for twenty years under the Clinton Roadless Rule. The goal was to resume and expand logging of old growth forests in valley bottoms of the Tongass.
The areas immediately targeted for cutting totaled only 186,000 acres, but included the biggest trees supporting the richest salmon habitat. Much of the Tongass consists of rocks, ice and forests on no commercial value.
“I commend the Biden Administration for ensuring the future of our shared public lands is based on science, a legally sound process, and stakeholder input,” said Senator Maria Cantwell (D‑Washington) in a statement sent to NPI.
“The fate of one of the world’s last great remaining temperate forests shouldn’t be a political decision made on a whim. The salmon runs, carbon storage, and tourism appeal that the Tongass currently provides will always be more valuable to Pacific Northwest communities than any subsidized logging projects.”
Cantwell and fellow Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan previously objected to the rollback last year, laying out the case:
Scientists have repeatedly urged maintaining protection for this largely intact, temperate rainforest.
The Tongass would rightly be managed as America’s climate forest because of the Tongass’ critical capacity for carbon storage and climate change mitigation. The protection of these lands for their conservation value also supports healthy populations of salmon and other wildlife essential to the people of the region.
Researchers studied vast 1960s and 1970s clearcuts on Prince of Wales and Chichagof Islands. They found that little sunlight reaches the ground beneath dense second growth stands, and that plants on the forest floor are sparse.
Such habitat does not support Sitka black tailed deer, brown bear and other among four hundred species of wildlife found in the Tongass.
John Schoen, a longtime scientist with Alaska Fish & Game and Audubon Alaska, wrote in his book Tongass Odyssey::
“The clear cutting of old growth is an archaic and unsustainable timber practice. This appraisal was clearly articulated in 2014 when many scientists – including two former chiefs of the Forest Service – wrote the president, requesting ‘a national old growth conservation policy that fully protects the remaining old growth on national forests throughout the United States’.
“The many sustainable resource uses on the Tongass – from subsistence harvesting of fish and wildlife to commercial and sportfishing, tourism and outdoor recreation and carbon storage – are at risk from continued logging of old growth.”
The reaction to Friday’s action by the Biden Administration pitted backers of the old bring-the-cut-out, drill-baby-drill, dig-baby-dig Alaska economy against those championing a sustainable, climate-conscious future.
“From tourism to timber, Alaska’s great Tongass National Forest holds much opportunity for Alaskans, but the federal government wishes to see Alaskans suffer at the lack of jobs and prosperity,” Dunleavy said in a tweet.
Amy Gulick, author/photographer of “Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alasa’s Tongass Rain Forest,” which makes the case that ancient forests are essential to spawning salmon and other living things, said in an email: “The Tongass is a place where there are salmon in the trees – everything is still interconnected in this intact ecosystem. I am heartened to see that the Biden administration is showing us that it’s possible to exercise restraint and maintain the true riches of the magnificent Tongass rain forest in Alaska for generations to come.”
The administration, under law, will come up with a new preliminary “rule” for the Tongass in August, and then seek public comment. When the Trump regime was considering a rollback of protection, the vast majority of comments received were in support of maintaining protection of unlogged old growth forest.
The Biden administration has confronted multiple Trump actions in Alaska.
The new administration has put on hold its predecessor’s fire sale of oil and gas drilling rights in the Arctic Refuge.
The sale was a monumental bust, with major oil companies declining to bid, and major banks saying they would not underwrite oil exploration in the refuge.
But the new administration is supporting ConocoPhillips’ big Willow oil development project, located in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve just west of the Prudhoe Bay oil field. It was green lighted under Trump.
The Biden administration is also defending the controversial King Cove Road, designed to link two isolated Alaska Peninsula villages, that would go through the Isembek National Wildlife Refuge.
Conservation groups have nationalized battles over logging, mining and oil drilling on public lands in Alaska. After all, they’re public property. A key weapon has been exhibit-format books published by Braided River, a division of Mountaineers Books. Under pressure from Alaska’s congressional delegation, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, moved to a remote corridor and censored an exhibit from Subhankar Banerjee’s book “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land.” It got him booked at other museums across the country.
Still, Alaska’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is a pivotal Senate vote when it comes to such issues as upgrading America’s infrastructure and voting rights. (Native villages are a big source of support for Murkowski.)
The Biden Administration gave her something to applaud by backing the Willow project. But she’s not happy at prospective return of the Roadless Rule.
“Alaskans believe the Roadless Rule burdensome, unnecessary and since its inception have called for the Tongass to be exempt from it,” she said Friday in a statement. “We need to end this ‘yo-yo’ effect as the lives of Alaskans who live and work in the Tongass are upended every time we have a new President.”
But the Biden administration’s decision means that eight hundred year old trees will not be upended with chainsaws, and ecosystems left intact.