Trump Opens Tongass, the Nation’s Largest Intact Protected Forest, to Logging

CC BY-SA 2.0 via Courthouse News

WASHINGTON (CN) — Some 16 million acres representing one of the world’s largest preserved temperate rainforests will soon be open to logging following a Wednesday announcement from the Trump administration.

The region is the Tongass National Forest situated in Southeast Alaska. It was first established in 1908 under President Teddy Roosevelt, a naturalist who marveled at its 15,000 combined miles of rivers and streams sustaining a multitude of salmon species and trout. Its glaciers and forests play habitat for bald eagles, large numbers of black and brown bears, and the Sitka deer, identifiable by a characteristic black tail. Much of the land also sustains several Native American populations nearby. 

Long a target of the timber industry, the Tongass — along with 60 million additional acres of forest spanning 39 states — received protection under a “roadless rule” put in place under President Bill Clinton that restricted most road construction in America’s forests. 

Come Thursday, however, the Department of Agriculture will publish a notice in the Federal Register that makes roughly 9.3 million of the Tongass’ 16-million-acre sprawl — all of which serves as a natural carbon sink — legally available to timber companies.

The move comes after multiple unsuccessful court attempts by the Trump administration since October 2019 to chip away at the Clinton-era standard. In June, a federal judge in Alaska rejected a proposal from the government to roll back protections for 185,000 acres of Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, a part of the Alexander Archipelago that also encompasses the Tongass. In the ruling, the judge cited a failure by the Trump administration to consider long-term consequences of logging. 

Republican lawmakers have echoed the White House’s call to open the Tongass, arguing that overly strenuous regulations have hampered the state’s economy. In 2019, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski penned a lengthy op-ed in the Washington Post in which she argued that the the “burdensome” roadless rule works against “common sense” needs of the average Alaskan. Her counterpart in the House, Alaska Representative Don Young, has also lauded the president’s push to undo the protections. The same position is also held by Alaska’s Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy.

Officials from six of the region’s native tribal governments — the Angoon Cooperative Association, the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, the Hoonah Indian Association, the Hydaburg Cooperative Association, the Organized Village of Kake, and the Organized Village of Kasaan — have regularly expressed opposition to the plan.

In a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue issued last week, the tribes described a long history of their request to engage with the U.S. Forest Service falling on deaf ears.

“We spent our own time, money, and energy to invest in creating a workable compromise for the communities of Southeast Alaska to this long-standing controversial issue,” Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, wrote. “We then learned that the State of Alaska was granted $2 million by the U.S. Forest Service to serve in their capacity as a cooperating agency, even though they have never been invested in finding a compromise and have advocated overwhelmingly for a full exemption from the start.”

From that $2 million grant, the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry group, received handsome contracts exceeding $200,000 to consult the Forest Service on how to handle the roadless rule.

In August, the federal watchdog Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued the Forest Service under the Freedom of Information Act seeking records related to the Forest Service’s timber sales in the Tongass, Prince of Wales Island and nearby Petersburg, Alaska. 

The lawsuit was spurred after the group obtained an internal report by the Forest Service that depicted inexplicable “staggering losses” of $2 million in Tongass timber sales.

Christopher French, deputy chief for the National Forest System, never delivered on his subsequent promise to conduct a complete audit of timber operations in the region.

A representative from the U.S. Forest Service did not immediately respond to request for comment.

In a statement issued Thursday, Sierra Club chapter director Andrea Feniger described preservation of the Tongass as a “matter of survival,” given its ability to control greenhouse gas emissions among other critical benefits.

“A standing healthy forest is absolutely essential to the subsistence survival of Indigenous peoples. It’s also essential for mitigating the climate crisis that threatens us all. We will continue to fight for the Tongass and those who depend on it,” Feniger said. “We will challenge the lifting of restrictions against logging in the forest’s roadless areas at every turn.”

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