WASHINGTON - The Biden administration on Thursday will announce sweeping protections for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, according to federal officials, including an end to large-scale logging of old-growth and a proposal to bar road development on more than 9 million acres.
The changes would mark a major shift for a region that has relied on felling massive trees for more than a century. The changes would also reverse one of Donald Trump’s biggest public lands decisions and halt a significant source of future carbon emissions in the decade to come.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the proposal would provide $25 million for community development, and allow Alaska Natives and small-scale operators to continue to harvest some old-growth trees. But Vilsack - who proposed a much more gradual transition away from old-growth logging during his time as secretary under Barack Obama - said the time had come to focus on other economic activities including fishing, recreation and tourism.
“This approach will help us chart the path to long-term economic opportunities that are sustainable and reflect Southeast Alaska’s rich cultural heritage and magnificent natural resources,” he said.
The Tongass, part of one of the world’s last relatively intact temperate rainforests, is the only national forest where old-growth logging still takes place on an industrial scale. While timber operations felled large swaths of its largest trees between the 1960s and 1980s, about 5 million acres of prime old-growth habitat remains, according to the Forest Service.
Scientists have identified logging there as a future driver of planetary warming, since its ancient trees - many of which are at least three centuries old - absorb at least 8 percent of all the carbon stored in the entire Lower 48′s forests combined.
“This is the most important thing that can happen in terms of preserving forests,” said Beverly Law, professor emeritus of global change biology at Oregon State University in a phone interview.
She noted that the carbon stored in old-growth trees can stay out of the atmosphere for about a thousand years if it remains uncut, while research has found that roughly 65 percent of the carbon held by trees that are felled is released in the ensuing decades. “It’s becoming obvious to people who aren’t aware that our forests are the most effective way of taking up carbon, and storing carbon for much longer than anywhere else.”
Alaska’s statewide elected leaders, including GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, have consistently opposed restrictions on logging and other forms of industrial development within the forest. Trump exempted the state from the roadless rule, which Bill Clinton enacted in 2001, in October.
But a broad coalition of Alaska Native leaders, environmentalists, commercial fishing operators, anglers and tourism companies have argued that protecting Southeast Alaska’s rugged terrain represents the best way forward. Much of the Tongass’ 16.7-million acre expanse is accessible only by boat, small plane or on foot. Towering stands of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, red cedar and Alaska yellow cedars blanket much of the archipelago, and safeguard waterways teeming with five species of wild salmon.
Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, has spent two decades fighting to preserve the forest’s roadless areas, said in a phone interview that he welcomed the cancellation of three major timber sales and the new grants.
“It’s a start,” he said, adding the federal government had spent tens of millions a year subsidizing logging.
Austin Williams, Alaska director of law and policy for Trout Unlimited, said in an email that the Forest Service had decided to “align itself with the economic realities of the region, where fishing, guiding and tourism have been the mainstays for decades.”
“We need healthy rivers and forests, abundant fish and wildlife, beautiful scenery, and management that recognizes the cultural values of the forest, not more costly and damaging clear-cut logging of old-growth forest,” he said.