Tongass National Forest Plan Threatens Wildlife, Economy, and More

Comment period ending on White House proposal that skirts standard federal review process

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Tongass National Forest Plan Threatens Wildlife, Economy, and More
An aerial view shows the natural bounty of the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.
Christopher Chan

Despite strong evidence of the value of current protections in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and widespread support for those safeguards, the Trump administration is moving forward with a plan to lift them. And time is running out for Americans to urge the White House to shelve that plan.

Since 2001, 9.5 million acres of the Tongass has been protected under the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, known as the roadless rule, which was established to protect the cleanest sources of drinking water, the most intact wildlife habitat, and the best recreational areas in national forests in Alaska and more than three dozen other states. In the Tongass, the policy safeguards the spawning grounds of one-quarter of the West Coast’s wild salmon along with habitat for a wide variety of wildlife and expansive stands of old-growth trees.

In early 2018, the state of Alaska put those protections in jeopardy by filing a petition asking the U.S. Forest Service to eliminate roadless area protections in the Tongass to increase logging and other development. The agency began work on an environmental impact statement, based on scientific analysis, but that work was cut short in February 2019, when Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy asked President Donald Trump to implement a “total exemption” from the rule. The president responded during the summer by directing Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the Forest Service, to exempt the Tongass from the roadless rule, effectively upending the Forest Service’s environmental review process for the petition and undermining the important role of science in agency decision-making. The public has until Dec. 17 to comment on the White House proposal.

Snow caps the mountains of the Chilkat Range west of Juneau.
John Hyde/Design Pics

Rolling back the roadless rule would remove protections on more than 9 million acres of the 16.7 million-acre Tongass, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of the remaining intact forest landscape managed by the Forest Service. These landscapes are unfragmented areas large enough to maintain biological diversity and support healthy habitats for wildlife, including all five of North America’s Pacific salmon species as well as brown bears and Sitka black-tailed deer. Furthermore, trees have a remarkable capacity to store carbon, which helps to boost the planet’s resilience to climate change. The Tongass holds 8 percent of all carbon stored in U.S. national forests, a service that would be jeopardized if logging resumed in the protected areas.

Removing these roadless protections would hurt in other ways. Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent nonprofit group, reports that a Forest Service-operated timber sales program in the Tongass has been a financial failure, costing taxpayers nearly $600 million over the past two decades, and evidence suggests that future logging would continue to result in losses. Also, local tourism and commercial fishing companies rely on a healthy, intact, and undisturbed Tongass. In fact, data from the regional development organization Southeast Conference shows that timber provides just under 1 percent of southeastern Alaska’s jobs, compared with 8 percent for seafood processing and 17 percent for tourism. That’s one reason more than 200 commercial fisherman have written to the Forest Service imploring the agency to uphold the roadless rule.

A brown bear on Admiralty Island in Tongass National Forest carries its catch under the watchful eye of a bald eagle.
Don MacDougall/U.S. Forest Service

In addition, more than a dozen native American tribes, along with a regional organization and a national one, oppose eliminating the Tongass roadless area protections, in large part because the intact forest has been a vital element of their culture for millennia.

Time is running out to urge the Department of Agriculture to uphold protections for roadless areas in Alaska’s Tongass. Opening the largest national forest to road building and logging would hurt wildlife, habitat, and recreation areas and come at a great cost to American taxpayers, indigenous tribes, and local commercial fishermen.

Ken Rait is a project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation program.

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