Trump to Lift Logging Restrictions in America's Largest National Forest: A Climate Change Threat 'Like the Fires Burning in the Amazon,' Warns Expert

The Trump administration is looking to remove a 20-year-old set of logging restrictions covering the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, according to reports.

Tongass—located in the southeast of the state—is the largest national forest in the United States encompassing 16.7 million acres.

In 2001, the Clinton administration introduced the so-called "Roadless Rule" which put limitations on logging and road construction across the country. But The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump has directed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to lift these restrictions at Tongass so that the forest is exempt from these rules, citing three sources who were briefed privately on the issue.

The latest moves could potentially open up more than half of Tongass—the world's largest intact temperate rain forest—to logging, mining and energy projects, environmental groups warn.

"[This] is another example of the administration's penchant for selling out our nation's public land legacy for the private gain of a limited few," Patrick Lavin, Alaska Policy Advisor for non-profit, Defenders of Wildlife, told Newsweek.

The fate of the forest has long been uncertain. For the past two decades, the logging industry and its friends in Congress have been keen to exploit the forest's vast natural resources. However, there has been significant opposition from environmental groups, local Native communities and some politicians.

The Roadless Area Conservation Rule—introduced in 2001 established prohibitions with some exceptions on road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvest on 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA.) "Inventoried Roadless Areas covered by the 2001 Roadless Rule comprise 9.2 million acres—55 percent—of the Tongass National Forest."

But in 2003, the George W. Bush administration partially reversed the rule, opening up 2.3 million acres to logging trucks, The New York Times reported. Over the remainder of the decade several rulings by the Forest Service and federal courts changed the status of the Roadless Rule, either in favor or against logging.

Eventually, a federal judge ruled in 2011 that the Tongass forest should not be exempted from the Clinton-era rule. Approximately 5.7 million acres of the forest are designated as wilderness by Congress meaning that these areas cannot be touched. However, a lifting of the Roadless Rule could open up around 9.2 million acres to development.

Some high-profile Alaska representatives, such as Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R,) have spoken out against the rule.

The rule "should never have been applied to our state" Murkowski told The Post adding that it is "harming our ability to develop a sustainable, year-round economy for the Southeast region, where less than one percent of the land is privately held."

"The timber industry has declined precipitously, and it is astonishing that the few remaining mills in our nation's largest national forest have to constantly worry about running out of supply," she said.

Environmental groups, however, have been critical of the Trump administration's latest moves for several reasons. Earthjustice, a non-profit public interest organization dedicated to litigating environmental issues, says that if the state-specific rule is approved by the USDA, it would supersede the existing Roadless Rule and pave the way fro the Forest Service to carve up Tongass, "all for a handout to industry."

"The draft environmental impact statement for the rule, due out next month, would lay the groundwork for new logging roads in areas that have been off-limits for decades," a statement provided to Newsweek by Earthjustice read. "This would drastically affect surrounding communities, tourism, and commercial fishing and seafood industries."

The timber industry in Alaska has long been in decline and is responsible for less than 1 percent of jobs in the southeast of the state—as of 2017—in comparison to 17 percent for tourism and 8.5 percent for the seafood industry, according to data from the Alaska Southeast Conference.

"What's even more warped is that the economics of federal subsidies for the timber industry are magnified in the Tongass," the statement from Earthjustice continues. "On average, and if all road building and timber sale costs on the Tongass are taken in to account, the Tongass timber sale program costs taxpayers $26 million each year while yielding just $1.69 million in return, for an average loss of more than $24 million dollars each year for over the last 20 years—largely due to the exorbitant costs of building and maintaining new logging roads. So why are we taxpayers being forced to support an archaic, unwanted industry?"

Misty Fjord, Tongass National Forest
Misty Fjord in the Tongass National Forest, Alaska. iStock

But aside from economic considerations, experts have also raised concerns about the potential environmental implications, if Tongass is opened up to new logging. With the world's attention focused on fires burning in the Amazon rain forest, the link is being made between deforestation and climate destabilization.

"President Trump's attack on the Tongass National Forest is like the fires burning in the Amazon—it's a huge threat to a major climate change buffer and to lands and wildlife that have global significance," Eric Jorgensen, managing attorney for Earthjustice in Juneau, Alaska, told Newsweek. "The wild, roadless areas of the Tongass offer critical wildlife habitat and support Southeast Alaskan tourism and fishing businesses, the economic mainstays of the region."

"The forest protects pristine water sources and provides irreplaceable cultural and subsistence value to Alaska Native people," he said. "Its old growth trees are the greatest carbon sanctuary in the U.S. national forests, helping us all as a counterweight against climate change. This ecologically rich landscape and all the benefits it brings will be lost if roads and chainsaws are allowed to carve it up. There is no good reason to roll back protections for the Tongass. Earthjustice will oppose every attack on the safeguards wisely established by the Roadless Rule."

Lavin echoed these sentiments, saying that removing the ancient trees could reduce the future ability of the forest to store carbon—a process that mitigates the impact of climate change. He also noted the significant impact a rise in logging could have on the forest's ecosystem.

"The timber industry has already targeted and removed many of the largest, most valuable and most accessible ancient forest stands in the Tongass, a practice known as 'high-grading.' Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) contain about half of the remaining old-growth forest habitat on the Tongass and support old-growth dependent wildlife species such as Sitka black-tailed deer, Alexander Archipelago wolves, northern goshawks and many more," he said.

"At the landscape scale, opening IRAs to logging and roadbuilding will destroy and further fragment wildlife habitat, reducing ecological function and connectivity, and ultimately species' viability. In some specific regions, the effect could be the loss of most of the rare 'large tree' old growth habitat and local extirpation of species dependent on contiguous and connected blocks of that habitat," Lavin added.

Lavin describes Tongass—the largest coastal rain forest in North America—as the "crown jewel" of the National Forest System, highlighting its ecological and economic importance.

"Coastal rainforests are globally rare, constituting just 0.5 percent of the earth's total forested area, and play a critical role in the delivery of nutrients to the oceans," he said. "The highly productive rivers and streams of the Tongass support commercial and sport fisheries totaling $1 billion in annual value, and subsistence fisheries that are the lifeblood of the local southeast Alaska communities."

"Recreation and tourism on the Tongass provide another $1 billion annually to the regional economy. The vestigial timber industry now provides less than 1 percent of regional employment and wages, but the unsustainable nature of clearcut logging creates an outsized environmental impact. The Tongass can support the region's thriving subsistence, fishing, recreation and tourism industries over time, but those sustainable industries need a healthy forest in order to continue. Clearcutting that forest contributes little to the economy and takes away from the real value of the Tongass," he said.

Trump to Lift Logging Restrictions in America's Largest National Forest: A Climate Change Threat 'Like the Fires Burning in the Amazon,' Warns Expert | U.S.