The U.S. Forest Service wants to open the largest remaining U.S. coastal temperate rainforest, Alaska’s Tongass, to new logging, mining, and road-building, according to a plan announced Friday.
The agency released the final environmental impact statementfor its plan calling for the end of many protections for the Tongass National Forest, which is larger than the state of West Virginia. The move will exempt the forest from the Alaska Roadless Rule, which prohibits logging, mining and road-building on about 55% of its land.
Mining, logging and other development under the plan would be newly allowed across an area nearly twice the land mass of New Jersey, but it would not affect the 5.7 million acres of the forest protected as wilderness. The plan is expected to be finalized after a 30-day “waiting” period required under National Environmental Policy Act regulations ends on Oct. 26.
The decision is expected to be swiftly challenged in court, and no activity is expected before the end of President Donald Trump’s term. If Trump isn’t re-elected, a new Democratic presidential administration is likely to undo the decision.
Roadless areas are important because they preserve wildlife habitat, benefit the economy, protect sacred sites for Indigenous peoples and provide “long-term life support benefits for society as a whole,” the Forest Service concluded in its final environmental review.
But the state of Alaska’s 2018 petition for the federal government to exempt the Tongass from the roadless rule presented a “unique opportunity” to provide “certainty” about roadless areas targeted by the logging, energy and mining industries in Alaska, the environmental review says.
With that in mind, and with pressure from President Donald Trump, the Forest Service said its “preferred alternative” for the Tongass is to cut off the protections for roadless areas in the Tongass, including the life-support services it identified.
The plan was among six possible options for exempting all or part of the Tongass from the roadless rule.
The agency opted for the least protective option: a full exemption from the rule, opening 9.2 million acres to possible development, and possibly permitting 168,000 acres of old-growth forest to be logged and giving silver and gold mines in the forest a chance to expand.
Deferring to the State
The Forest Service suggested in its announcement that the public comment it received on the options influenced its plan.
But an internal Forest Service report shows 96% of 15,909 public comment letters the agency received about the proposal supported maintaining roadless protections for the Tongass.
The agency, in its final environmental review, said it “gave substantial weight to the State’s policy preferences,” which is within the discretion of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. State governments have the best understanding of the balance between environmental protection and economic development, the agency said in its review.
Advocacy groups opposing development in the Tongass objected to that reasoning.
“The reliance on the state as the driver for this decision ignores that this is the Tongass NATIONAL Forest and they need to do what is in the NATIONAL interest, which is not to squander taxpayer dollars on roadbuilding and even greater losses on money-losing timber sales,” Autumn Hanna, vice president of the Taxpayers for Common Sense, said via email.
Trump in 2019 instructed the Department of Agriculture to grant a Roadless Rule exemption for the Tongass after meeting with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R), the Washington Post reported.
But Agriculture Department spokesman Larry Moore on Friday said the plan to drop roadless protections for the Tongass wasn’t predetermined.
The plan reflects the Agriculture Department’s understanding that roadless protections need to be “adjusted” to address local economic concerns while “balancing roadless area conservation needs.”
In November, the Forest Service said it was unable to say why it was dropping roadless protections for the Tongass.
But the agency and the timber industry say that waiving the rule would open only a small part of the 16.8-million-acre forest to logging, because much of the forest is protected wilderness and forest officials don’t consider the rest to be ideal for harvesting.
A ‘Broken’ Process?
Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige said Friday that the plan will bring “improved economics” to Southeast Alaska.
“In terms of economic impact, the roadless rule has had a stranglehold on the economy of Southeast Alaska for nearly two decades, and its good to see action being taken that will help Alaskans rebuild that local economy,” Feige said.
Other chief proponents of opening up the Tongass, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sealaska, an Alaska Native corporation that logs in the region, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Groups poised to challenge the plan say they will wait for the final decision before deciding how to challenge it.
The Forest Service is required to wait 30 days before issuing a final decision to give the public and other agencies a chance to review and provide more feedback about the plan, said Kate Glover, a Juneau, Alaska-based attorney for Earthjustice.
“Sometimes, feedback on the final EIS results in changes to the final agency decision,” Glover said.
But Moore denied that the public is being given another chance weigh in on the Tongass plan.
The 30 days gives Perdue—not the public—a chance to weigh the alternatives and issue a final decision, Moore said.
With vast areas covered in centuries-old Sitka spruce and hemlock, the old-growth forest within the Tongass holds 8% of the carbon stored in continental U.S. forests.
It plays an outsize role in helping to stabilize the climate because its old-growth trees and soil store more carbon dioxide acre-for-acre than the Amazon.
Parts of the Tongass have been logged in the past, and the Trump administration is eager to open the forest to new development.
In 2019, the administration responded to a petition from the state of Alaska by proposing to open parts of the forest to new logging, and exempting the Tongass from the 2001 Roadless Rule.