WASHINGTON (CN) - Aiming to open up the country's largest national forest to logging operations, the Trump administration on Tuesday announced plans to roll back federal protections on Alaska's Tongass National Forest.
In a draft environmental impact statement that will be published later this week, the Department of Agriculture lays out six plans for applying the 2001 roadless rule, which set off 58.5 million acres of undeveloped National Forest System land from road construction or logging, to the Tongass National Forest.
The administration favors its sixth proposal, which would totally exempt the Tongass from the rule. That proposal would designate some 185,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest as suitable for timber production and remove 9.2 million acres in total from the roadless rule's protections, according to an agency press release.
The move comes in response to a petition from Alaska, which asked the administration to rework the roadless rule. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Representative Don Young, all Alaska Republicans, have been supportive of efforts to change regulation of the Tongass and President Donald Trump reportedly pushed to change the rule after speaking with Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy in August.
"I'm very pleased the administration has listened to Alaskans and is proposing a full exemption from the roadless rule as its preferred alternative," Murkowski said in a statement. "I thank President Trump, Secretary [of Agriculture Sonny] Perdue, and the team at the Forest Service for their hard work to this point - and for their continued efforts to restore reasonable access to the Tongass National Forest. This is important for a wide array of local stakeholders as we seek to create sustainable economies in Southeast Alaska."
Opponents of the rule as it currently exists say it locks off too much valuable land from development, limiting economic growth across a vast swath of the southeastern portion of the state.
But environmental groups say the Tongass is a critical natural habitat and bulwark against climate change that must be protected from logging and other forms of development.
"There's no good reason to roll back protection of the rule for the Tongass," Eric Jorgensen, an attorney at Earthjustice, said in an interview. "And it's important, in fact, to the contrary, that we treat the Tongass like it's our Amazon. We want to treat it as a resource to be protected for future generations and this proposal is inconsistent with decades of protection for roadless areas on the Tongass."
The proposal now faces a 60-day public comment period, after which time the administration will revise and publish a final version of the rule, an action Jorgensen said could be expected sometime next year.
If the administration follows through and finalizes its preferred plan, Jorgensen said it will likely face a legal challenge.
"The agency will have a heavy burden to justify the change and we'll work hard to protect the roadless areas of the Tongass going forward," Jorgensen said.
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