A Biden administration decision finalizing protections for Tongass National Forest, which restores longstanding roadless protections to the 9.37 million acres of rainforest, is drawing a broad spectrum of views about whether it will hurt or help the economy of Southeast Alaska.
U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, were quick to criticize the decision as one that ignored state of Alaska requests along with data and analysis from the Trump administration, which supported the 2020 exemption from the Roadless Rule.
Murkowski labeled the Biden administration’s decision to restore those protections as “federal paternalism at its worst,” saying roughly 80% of that federal forest is already protected by existing law, land use designations, and the forest planning process.
This action will make it take longer, be more expensive, or even outright impossible to develop the limited infrastructure, including renewable energy, needed for a sustainable regional economy, she said.
Southeast Alaska residents have a right to connect their communities to sustain local economies, build renewable energy projects and responsible harvest resources, said Sullivan. Returning to the 2001 Roadless Rule undermines all of these, he said.
Austin Williams, legal and policy director for Trout Unlimited, said the decision was a long time coming. This strategy is designed to support local economies fueled by an intact and healthy forest, where tourism and fishing make up one in four jobs, Williams said.
SalmonState, the conservation entity focused on protecting habitat critical to salmon, praised the decision of the USDA, saying they look forward to working with the U.S. Forest Service on how to make tourism, fisheries and the Tongass National Forest work better for Alaskans. Southeast Alaska is home to a very diverse urban and rural culture, including ancestral and unceded territory of the Tlingit Haida and Tsimshian tribes. Wild salmon critical to these tribal cultures nourish the ecosystem, and protection of salmon habitat is also critical.
Commercial fisheries contribute $1 billion to the economy of Southeast Alaska each year and are one of the region’s biggest employers. Eagles, bears and other wildlife who feed on the salmon also attract thousands of visitors to the area each year, further contributing to the regional economy.
The USDA’s Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy prioritizes locally-led sustainable economic development, stream restoration, resiliency to a changing climate and recreation.
“Restoring roadless protections listens to the voices of Tribal Nations and the people of Southeast Alaska while recognizing the importance of fishing and tourism to the region’s economy,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
The 16.7-million-acre Tongass National Forest represents the largest intact tract of coastal temperate rainforest on earth and is considered critical for carbon sequestration and carbon storage to help mitigate climate change. The USDA cites America’s forests as a key climate solution, absorbing carbon dioxide equivalent to more than 10% of U.S. annual greenhouse gas emissions.