(CN) — A diverse coalition of environmental groups, indigenous communities and businesses located in Southeastern Alaska filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration Wednesday, claiming the rollback of restrictions on logging in the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest could harm one of the continent’s largest forests.
The Organized Village of Kake, the Hoonah Indian Association, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and green groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Center for Biological Diversity filed the complaint in federal court in Juneau Wednesday, saying the U.S. Forest Service failed to conduct an adequate environmental analysis before rolling back the Roadless Rules.
The Roadless Rule prevents logging operations in some areas of the expansive forest, which plaintiffs say is necessary to preserve the ecosystem home to several species of rare flora and fauna while preserving the way of life of indigenous tribes.
“We still walk and travel across this traditional and customary use area, which is vast and surrounds all of our communities to the north, south, east and west,” said Joel Jackson, Tribal President of the Organized Village of Kake. “It’s important that we protect these lands and waters, as we are interconnected with them. Our way of life depends on it.”
The Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples have lived and used the temperate rainforest encompassed by the Tongass for countless generations, the lawsuit says, and allowing roads to pierce pristine areas of the forest to allow for logging could impact their livelihoods.
Furthermore, the largest national forest in America hosts a cornucopia of rare animal species — including Alexander archipelago wolves, which are found nowhere else on Earth.
Roughly 40% of the salmon that swim along the West Coast spawn within the Tongass National Forest.
Foxes, black and brown bears also weave their way among the looming stands of old-growth cedar and spruce trees.
“Trump’s reckless plan to clearcut old-growth trees in the Tongass will irreversibly damage our climate, kill wildlife and devastate Southeast Alaska communities,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re in the midst of climate and wildlife extinction crises and the Tongass is a lifeline for our planet.”
The plaintiffs also claim the Tongass provides a much-needed climate stronghold, as the forest excels at absorbing greenhouse gas emissions and functions as a large carbon sink.
“Old-growth forests play a vital role in helping to slow climate change,” said Andy Moderow, Alaska director at Alaska Wilderness League. “The Tongass alone stores hundreds of millions of metric tons of CO2 and sequesters millions more annually. The complete removal of roadless protections on the Tongass will only worsen the climate crisis.”
The Roadless Rule has been a political football spanning back decades and involving several presidential administrations and Alaska federal lawmakers.
George W. Bush attempted to repeal the Roadless Rule for the Tongass in 2003, but a lawsuit was filed and that repeal was lifted by a court order in 2011.
Several proponents of the repeal say the Roadless Rule prevents Alaskans from using the state’s natural resources in an economically beneficial way, as logging, mining and other resource extraction industries are effectively shut down.
When Trump announced the decision to repeal the rule, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, Governor Michael Dunleavy and others hailed the move as a boon to the local economy.
“As Alaskans know well, the Roadless Rule hinders our ability to responsibly harvest timber, develop minerals, connect communities, or build energy projects to lower costs — including renewable energy projects like hydropower, all of which severely impedes the economy of Southeast,” said Senator Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, in a statement.
But not everybody sees the issue as clear cut with the environment on one side and the economy on the other.
For instance, fishermen who depend on the area for a steady supply of salmon, say logging, mining and other such activities will despoil their sanctuary and make their livelihoods tougher to earn.
“SeaBank’s natural capital produces economic outputs worth several billion dollars per year to residents, visitors and society as a whole — and it will generate that output every year, provided we take care of the underlying natural capital of the forest, estuaries and ocean,” said Linda Behnken, commercial fisherman and executive director of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.
Timber provides less than 1% of Alaska’s economic output according to recent census figures. Meanwhile, ecotourism accounts for 17%.
“I cannot overstate the importance of inventoried roadless areas to Southeast Alaska’s tourism and recreation economy,” said Hunter McIntosh, president of The Boat Company. “The Roadless Rule ensures these irreplaceable lands will remain protected and continue to draw visitors from throughout the globe.”