A federal agency said Wednesday it is reinstating restrictions on road-building and logging on the country’s largest national forest in Southeast Alaska, the latest move in a long-running fight over the Tongass National Forest.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in late 2021 announced that it was beginning the process of repealing a Trump administration-era decision that exempted the Tongass from the so-called roadless rule. The agency on Wednesday said it had finalized that plan.
The new rule will take effect once it is published in the Federal Register, which is expected to happen Friday, said agency spokesperson Larry Moore.
Roadless areas account for about one-third of all U.S. national forest system lands. But Alaska political leaders have long sought an exemption to the roadless rule for the Tongass, seeing the restrictions as burdensome and limiting economic opportunities. They supported efforts under former President Donald Trump to remove the roadless designation for about 9.4 million acres on the Tongass.
Supporters of the rule say the Tongass encompasses key habitat for spawning salmon and other species, and it is a globally important carbon sink, helping to combat climate change.
Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola said Wednesday she does not support the Biden administration’s decision, saying it will prevent community-supported development in the region, including renewable energy projects.
“I understand the concerns that folks have who are in favor of the roadless rule,” Peltola said in an interview. “It is a beautiful place, and we don’t want it becoming paved necessarily, but I also think that it’s important for Alaskans to have access to the resources that they need.”
Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy on social media Wednesday said people in Alaska “deserve access to the resources that the Tongass provides — jobs, renewable energy resources and tourism, not a government plan that treats human beings within a working forest like an invasive species.”
Alaska’s Republican Senators also blasted the decision. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the it is “federal paternalism at its worst” and turns the Tongass into “a political football, where access changes with each new President and creates whiplash for those who might want to invest or build in Southeast Alaska.” Sen. Sullivan called the rule “overly burdensome” and said he would “fight this and other Biden administration anti-Alaska actions with everything in my power.”
The dispute goes back more than two decades.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in revisiting the issue, cited a directive from President Joe Biden at the start of his term to review and address rules enacted under Trump that might conflict with environmental and climate aims laid out by Biden.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement called the Tongass “key to conserving biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis. 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.”
Environmental groups around the country are celebrating the announcement. Dyani Chapman, state director of the Alaska Environment Research and Policy Center, said she is “super excited” about the decision.
“Having the roadless rule in place is so important, because when you open up a forest like that to roads, it hurts the ecosystem by breaking it up into smaller pieces, and that can cause some really big problems,” she said.
A coalition of eight Southeast Tribal organizations, including the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, also commended the Biden administration for reinstating the rule.
“The return of the 2001 Roadless Rule protections signals a commitment from the agency to address the climate crisis and finally listen to the Southeast Tribes that will continue to be most impacted by climate change effects,” the statement said.
This story with reported by Becky Bohrer of the Associated Press with additional reporting by the ADN’s Riley Rogerson.