Conservationists are hoping the incoming Biden administration will reverse the Trump administration’s removal of Roadless Area Conservation Rule protections for 9 million acres of southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, North America’s largest temperate rainforest. The Trump administration’s October 2020 decision affects nearly half of the Tongass, which harbors the largest remaining tracts of old-growth forest in the country and is one of the crown jewels of our national forest system.
The roadless rule, established by the U.S. Forest Service 20 years ago today, was intended to conserve exceptional swaths of public lands by preventing all development in these places, even the construction of roads. Science shows that road building can lead to rapid degradation of ecosystems, especially when followed by logging, mining, and other industrial activities.
As initially adopted, the rule safeguarded 58 million acres of federal lands throughout the West, places Americans could access by foot, horseback, boat, and other means to hunt, fish, camp, and explore. For two decades, this policy has been a cornerstone of federal forest management.
Since the original protections were put in place, the underlying rationale for conserving the last untouched roadless areas in the Tongass has been buoyed by numerous scientific studies showing how deeply our planet needs large, contiguous protected areas. Trees help mitigate climate change by absorbing and storing carbon; the Tongass, due to its size, accounts for 8% of all carbon sequestered by U.S. forests each year.
In the Tongass, the roadless rule has facilitated the protection of ancient stands of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, western red cedar, and Alaska cedar, as well as salmon habitat and the traditional homelands of more than a dozen southeast Alaska tribes. Salmon require special attention for the role they play in the ecosystem and local economies: as predators and prey in waterways, as natural fertilizer for the watersheds after they die, as a food staple for residents, and as tourism drivers.
It’s no surprise that southeast Alaska’s commercial fishing community and tourism businesses are among the many factions that support restoring the roadless rule protections for the Tongass: fishing and tourism together make up 26% of the region’s economy, compared with only 1% for timber. Additionally, 12 Indigenous tribes petitioned the federal government in July 2020 to build on the existing roadless area protections.
From an economic standpoint, the move to reopen these 9 million acres to logging is a bad deal for Americans. Over the past four decades, logging in open areas of the Tongass cost the government $1.96 billion, while sales of that timber generated only $227 million in revenue—a loss of more than $40 million a year according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Further, national forests contribute some $13 billion to the U.S. economy from visitor spending, and support more than 200,000 jobs.
The Pew Charitable Trusts funded the Heritage Forest Campaign, which led the effort to secure these roadless protections more than 20 years ago—and which I was privileged to run. More than a million comments were shared in favor of the roadless policy, at the time the most ever on a federal rulemaking.
And that support remains: An independent study commissioned by Pew in 2019 found that 3 out of 4 Americans want to keep the roadless rule intact.
Fortunately, the bulldozers and chainsaws have not yet come to the roadless sections of this natural—and national—treasure. By reinstating roadless protections to the Tongass National Forest soon after taking office, Joe Biden can avert damage to the forest, show unity with Indigenous tribes, and support local economies. In doing so, the new president would honor his commitments to the environment and ensure that this policy continues to serve the interests of all Americans far into the future.
Ken Rait is a project director with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.