US will revisit Trump-era decision for Tongass

Donald Trump in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. (Nov. 26, 2020) Photo courtesy of Shealah Craighead/The White House

The federal government announced plans to “repeal or replace” a decision by the Trump administration last fall to lift restrictions on logging and road building in a southeast Alaska rainforest that provides habitat for wolves, bears and salmon.

Conservationists cheered the announcement as a positive step. But Republican Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy criticized it and vowed to use “every tool available to push back.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plans were announced on a federal regulatory site and were described as consistent with a January executive order from President Joe Biden that called for reviewing agency actions during the Trump administration that could be at odds with Biden’s environmental priorities. The U.S. Forest Service falls under the Agriculture Department.

The Tongass National Forest is the country’s largest national forest and in a statement, Matt Herrick, an Agriculture Department spokesperson, said the Trump administration decision “did not align with the overwhelming majority of public opinion across the country and among Alaskans.”

“Future decisions about the role of the Tongass National Forest should continue to reflect the best interests of Alaskans and the country as a whole,” Herrick said.

The statement did not outline the next steps the Agriculture Department would take to repeal or replace the Trump administration decision.

The Agriculture Department last October decided to exempt the Tongass from the so-called roadless rule, which prohibited road construction and timber harvests with limited exceptions. The roadless rule, dating to 2001, has long been the subject of litigation.

In 2018, Alaska under then-Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, asked the federal government to consider an exemption. Dunleavy supported the request, as have members of Alaska’s Republican congressional delegation.

Messages seeking comment were not immediately returned from spokespersons for Alaska’s U.S. senators.

Dunleavy on social media called the decision Biden’s “latest suppression” of Alaska “economic opportunity.”

The Biden administration earlier this month suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, following a January lease sale that drew a tepid response. A law passed by Congress in 2017 called for two lease sales to be held.

But U.S. government attorneys also have defended a decision made during the Trump administration to approve a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope that Alaska political leaders have supported.

The Agriculture Department in its decision about the Tongass National Forest last fall concluded that a policy change for the forest could be made “without major adverse impacts to the recreation, tourism, and fishing industries, while providing benefits to the timber and mining industries, increasing opportunities for community infrastructure, and eliminating unnecessary regulations.”

More than 9 million of the Tongass’ roughly 16.7 million acres are considered roadless areas, according to a federal environmental review last year. The majority of the Tongass is in a natural condition, and the forest is one of the largest, relatively intact temperate rainforests in the world, the review said.

Meredith Trainor, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said those who supported keeping the roadless rule provisions in place for the Tongass “heartily encourage the administration to put this thing to bed by repealing the Trump rule once and for all.”

Josh Hicks, senior campaign manager with The Wilderness Society, in a statement said forests are “highly effective at sequestering carbon and, if left standing, are one of the strongest natural solutions to combating the climate crisis.”