On Oct. 29 , the U.S. Forest Service made official its decision to eliminate roadless protections for more than half of the 16 million-acre Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. The move flies in the face of strong economic and scientific foundations for the roadless protections, and comes despite broad public support for continuing the regulations that have safeguarded for two decades the undeveloped areas across the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world.
The announcement, known formally as a Record of Decision, reflects the Forest Service’s October 2019 recommendation that the 9.2 million acres of roadless areas in the Tongass be fully exempt from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, commonly known as the roadless rule, which was designed to reduce the growing costs and destructive impacts of road construction and clear-cut logging in the most pristine parts of our national forests—and that in the Tongass has protected ancient trees and critical salmon habitat.
The agency moved forward despite the finding by the nonpartisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense that the Forest Service lost $16.1 million on timber sales in the Tongass National Forest in fiscal year 2019, and since 1980, has lost more than $1.7 billion. A new report from the organization finds that the past four decades of timber sales in the Tongass cost American taxpayers $1.96 billion to administer—while generating $227 million in revenue.
A recent study in Nature Communications found that the average size of four of Alaska’s wild salmon species has shrunk over the past 60 years. Smaller salmon provide “less food for people who depend on them, less value for commercial fishers, and less fertilizer for terrestrial ecosystems,” according to an article about the study published by the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The study validates concerns expressed by more than 200 commercial fishers in southeast Alaska, who wrote to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen last year asking for a delay in the plan’s release and urging a roadless rule that “prioritizes protecting and sustaining the Southeast salmon resource and its habitat in perpetuity,” including phasing out clear-cutting timber practices in old-growth forests.
A survey earlier this year by the public policy research firm Baselice & Associates Inc. found that more Alaskans support roadless forest protection on the Tongass than oppose it. This result is consistent with the opposition to the Forest Service’s forthcoming announcement from nearly a quarter-million people from throughout the country who submitted comments. By exempting the Tongass acreage from the roadless rule, the Forest Service is also ignoring requests by Southeast Alaska tribes, who have lived with this landscape for thousands of years, to sustain protections of their ancestral lands.
A new report from the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan public policy research institute of the U.S. Congress, determined that the Forest Service—in making its determination to eliminate the roadless rule in the Tongass—did not analyze the effect of timber harvesting under different scenarios, such as a change in the price of timber. The report notes that the Forest Service neglected to predict the impact of increased timber harvesting and associated road construction on other resources, such as fish populations, habitat fragmentation, and water quality levels.
The Forest Service action to dismantle Tongass roadless protections is a wholesale and egregious rollback of the roadless rule. Exempting the Tongass from roadless protections will further diminish the natural values of one of America’s premier national forests, its unbroken wildlife habitat, and its importance to Indigenous peoples in southeast Alaska.
Pew will work assiduously to restore these much-needed protections to Tongass roadless areas. Our partners, led by the region’s Indigenous communities, are planning to file litigation against the Forest Service for this decision. The Tongass National Forest and its ecologically and culturally valuable roadless acreage must be conserved for current and future generations.
Ken Rait is a project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.