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Biden restores protections for Tongass forest after Trump-era rollback

The U.S. Forest Service has finalized a rule restoring protections rolled back under the Trump administration for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the largest such forest in the U.S.

“As our nation’s largest national forest and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, the Tongass National Forest is key to conserving biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“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,” he added.

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In early 2001 the outgoing Clinton administration added most of the forest to its Roadless Initiative, barring road development or timber harvesting in the protected areas. The forest has been of particular concern to environmentalists due to its status as the country’s biggest carbon sink, or absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“The Tongass stores about 20 percent of the total amount of carbon that’s stored in the National Forest System,” Kate Glover, an attorney for the organization Earthjustice, told The Hill. “So that’s a large amount of carbon. It’s equal to about one and a half times U.S. total greenhouse gas emissions for the year 2018.”

Since the implementation of the initial Clinton rule, it has repeatedly been rolled back and restored, usually on a partisan basis, in addition to ongoing litigation.

Despite the Trump-era rollback, much of the forest loss began earlier, with about 88,000 acres transferred out of the forest to the Sealaska Corporation and the Alaska Mental Health Trust beginning in 2015. Since then, lands subject to ownership transfers have accounted for about 43 percent of forest loss between 2015 and 2020.

In July 2021, the Biden administration announced it would restore and expand protections wound back by the Trump administration, including an end to large-scale sales of timber from old-growth trees in the forest.

Ultimately, however, Glover said it’s difficult to avoid a scenario where the protections continue to seesaw based on the party in power without passing legislation through Congress. She specifically pointed to the Roadless Area Conservation Act, which passed the House last August but never received a Senate vote.

“It’s been something that’s been considered in Congress for a while and if they were to pass that bill, it would include the Tongass and make the roadless rule protections law. So they would be harder to change,” she said.  

“Absent that, one of the things that I think the Trump administration failed to recognize when they repealed the roadless rule at the time, is that … the economy in Southeast Alaska has moved on towards more sustainable industries” such as fishing, recreation and tourism rather than timber, she said. “So I hope that future administrations will recognize that that’s the direction the forest is headed.”