The Biden administration plans to restore environmental protection in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, one of the largest intact temperate rainforests in the world that was cut down by former President Donald J. Trump.
According to a White House document released Friday, the administration intends to “repeal or replace” a Trump-era rule that opened approximately nine million acres or more than half of the forest for logging and road building.
The Tongass in southeast Alaska is home to more than 400 species of animals, fish and shellfish, including nesting bald eagles, elk and the world’s highest concentration of black bears. Among its snow-capped peaks, fjords and rushing rivers are stands of red and yellow cedar and hemlock and Sitka spruce, which is at least 800 years old.
The forest also plays an important role in combating climate change. One of the largest carbon sinks in the world, its trees and soils absorb and store millions of tons of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, where it would trap heat and contribute to global warming.
The national forest has been protected from deforestation, mining, and other development since 2001 by a policy known as the roadless rule, which prevented the construction of roads required for these other activities.
But last year Trump lifted the rule for much of Tongass, which appealed to Alaskan lawmakers who had been campaigning for the change for years. The move has been attacked by environmentalists and the majority of commentators, who formally submitted their opinions to the government.
“The USDA recognizes that the Trump administration’s decision on the roadless rule in Alaska was controversial and inconsistent with the overwhelming majority of public opinion across the country and among Alaska’s residents,” said Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the US Ministry of Agriculture, the mother authority of the Forest Service. “We are aware of the critical role the forest and its inventoried roadless areas play in communities and in the economy and culture of Southeast Alaska, as well as in climate resistance. 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. “
The government will officially announce its intention to revise the rule by August, with details of the final plan expected within the next two years.
Alaska senators and governors have long claimed that lifting the protection of the roadless rule in their state would bring a much-needed economic boost.
Among them is Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who has argued in the past that parts of Tongass can be responsibly developed so that large areas of forest are not necessarily lost. It attacked the roadless rule as a “one-size-fits-all” standard that harms the timber industry, as well as mining, transportation and energy.
It is not clear whether the Biden government intends to completely replace the protective measures of the roadless rule in the Tongass, or whether they would replace protective measures in some areas and leave others open to economic development.
Ms. Murkowski is also a key figure in efforts to negotiate a bipartisan agreement on a comprehensive infrastructure bill, and the White House has been careful not to upset her. Earlier this year, Mr Biden – trying to strike a balance between his promises to fight climate change and protect the environment while securing Ms. Murkowski’s support for a legislative signature – switched between directives that drill fossil fuels permit in some parts of Alaska while prohibited in others.
Ms. Murkowski’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Mike Dunleavy, the Republican governor of Alaska, wrote on Twitter: “Disappointed with @POTUS ‘recent suppression of AK’s economic opportunities. From tourism to logging, Alaska’s great Tongass National Forest offers many opportunities for Alaskans, but the federal government wants Alaskans to suffer from the lack of jobs and wealth. “
“We will use every available tool to push back the latest imposition,” he added.
Environmentalists praised the move.
“We welcome this first step in what we hope will be a speedy process to restore the Tongass National Forest to full protection of the roadless rules,” said Ellen Montgomery, director of public land campaigns for Environment America. “The Trump administration’s rollbacks were an attack on the Tongass, which is a priceless treasure and a beacon of nature. Many trees in the Tongass are older than in the United States and we need to keep them up because the forest serves as an important bulwark against climate change. It also provides an irreplaceable home for our wildlife. “
Several climate scientists working with a group called the Tongass Coalition have asked the Biden government to create a strategic national carbon reserve by permanently protecting all of the state’s large trees and ancient forests. They determined that such a proposal could also help Mr Biden achieve his goal of getting 30 percent of the public land by 2030.
“To slow the runaway climate chaos, we need to do two things: get rid of fossil fuels as soon as possible and store atmospheric carbon,” said Dominick DellaSala, scientist at the Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit environmental organization. “The forests are the best and Tongass is the champion. But that would have to come from the president. That’s something he could do to move climate change forward quickly. “
In a number of recent mining, drilling, and development decisions in Alaska, Mr. Biden has crossed the line between conservation and development.
Last month, Home Secretary Deb Haaland called Ms. Murkowski and the rest of the Alaskan Congressional delegation to inform them that they would approve a multi-billion dollar ConocoPhillips oil drilling project in the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska. The project, which Ms. Haaland opposed during her tenure in Congress, is expected to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for 30 years, which includes decades of developing new fossil fuels and has been praised by Alaskan lawmakers.
But two weeks later the Biden government suspended drilling leases at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move Ms. Murkowski described as “outrageous”.