This issue brief is part of a series outlining public lands in Alaska that are in danger of losing protection.
Since 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service have advanced five efforts that would dramatically alter protections for some 60 million acres of federally managed land in Alaska. If fully enacted, the policies and decisions outlined in those proposed and finalized plans would open vast stretches of the Bering Sea-Western Interior, Tongass National Forest, Central Yukon, National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and unencumbered BLM land to extractive development and have significant impacts on Alaska’s lands, rivers, wildlife, and the Indigenous peoples who call these landscapes home.1
The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture have finalized plans to strip vital protections from the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. The new rule went into effect on Oct. 29, 2020, and exempts 9.2 million acres that the agencies manage from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which prohibits road-building on designated publicly managed lands throughout the country and safeguards federal forest land from logging and related industrial activity.2 The new policy allows construction of new roads to facilitate more commercial logging and mining in the most pristine areas of the nation’s largest national forest.
Moreover, the rule does not reflect the priorities of Alaska residents who support forest protection by a 6 percentage-point margin. Further, nearly a quarter of a million people from throughout the country submitted comments objecting to the plan before it was finalized. And among Alaskans who hunt and fish, 61 percent support maintaining roadless rule protections in the Tongass.3
Economically, opening the Tongass to industrial development has proved a losing proposition. A study by the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense found that since 1980, the Forest Service has lost more than $1.7 billion on Tongass timber sales, which generated total revenue of $227 million but cost American taxpayers $1.96 billion for subsidies and other expenditures.4
Further, the Forest Service’s plan fails to account for the effects on the Tongass of eliminating the roadless rule. In August 2020, a study by the Congressional Research Service determined that the Forest Service did not analyze the effects that the forest management plan, increased timber harvesting, and road construction would have on resources, such as fish populations, habitat, and water quality.5
Southeast Alaska tribes have fought for decades to maintain protections for the Tongass’ old-growth forest to safeguard Indigenous peoples’ culture and food security. The Bush administration and the state of Alaska both tried to undo the roadless rule, and the battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, leaving the protections in place.6
Because Indigenous communities’ well-being is inextricably linked to the ecological health of the forest, nine Southeast tribes recently petitioned the Forest Service to identify and protect Indigenous lands in the Tongass.7 However, the final plan did not address this request, and the tribes will continue working to conserve the ancient forest.