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A humpback whale uses its tail to launch itself out of the water and then lands back on the surface with a splash in Frederick Sound at Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. (Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A humpback whale uses its tail to launch itself out of the water and then lands back on the surface with a splash in Frederick Sound at Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. (Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Coalition Sues Trump Administration Over 'Outrageous Assault' on Tongass National Forest Protections

"Trump's reckless plan to clearcut old-growth trees in the Tongass will irreversibly damage our climate, kill wildlife, and devastate Southeast Alaska communities."

Jessica Corbett

A coalition of Indigenous groups, businesses, and conservation organizations on Wednesday sued the Trump administration over its "arbitrary and reckless" removal of roadless protections for the nearly 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest in Alaska, warning that the rollback could devastate local communities, wildlife, and the climate.

Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed the lawsuit (pdf) in the U.S. District Court in Alaska on behalf of regional tribes, businesses, and conservation groups. The complaint notes that the largest national forest, located in Southeast Alaska, "is central to the life ways of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people who have lived in and depended on the forest since time immemorial."

The U.S. Forest Service's move to exempt the forest from the Roadless Rule, finalized just days before President Donald Trump lost reelection to President-elect Joe Biden, would open up more than nine million acres of the Tongass—with its centuries-old trees that provide crucial carbon sequestration—to logging and roadbuilding.

"The Tongass Forest is my home. Home to the ancient Tlingit and Haida Indigenous Nations, it is where my ancestry originates. My bloodline is Indigenous to this land—its DNA is my DNA," said Kashudoha Wanda Loescher Culp, a Tlingit activist and Tongass coordinator for the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN). "The air we breathe, the water we depend on, the land we live upon, all pristine. It is a life to cherish. It is a way of living worth fighting for."

"The repeal of the Roadless Rule will only lead to the destruction of our homelands, and subsequently the destruction of our communities who depend upon the abundance of the forest," she said. "This is an attack on our peoples and the climate. The Trump administration's decision to open the Tongass to roads, logging, and mining is an underhanded misuse of congressional authority and the battle will go on—we will continue to rise in defense of our homelands."

Robert Starbard, tribal administrator of the Hoonah Indian Association, declared: "The need for this litigation is a mark of shame upon the federal government for violating the trust and responsibilities it has to the Indigenous peoples of the Tongass. It is equally a stain upon the state of Alaska, which colluded with the Trump administration to circumvent scientific analysis to achieve a desired political outcome."

Though the Hoonah Indian Association had accepted a government invitation to weigh in during the rulemaking process, "we ultimately withdrew as a cooperating agency when it became clear that our involvement was purely to provide political cover and lend legitimacy to a corrupted process with a preordained outcome," Starbard explained. "The Roadless Rule decision is fatally flawed and ignores the advice and expertise of the tribal cooperating agencies and omits significant issues and concerns."

Andrea Feniger, Sierra Club Alaska chapter director, emphasized that "preserving the Tongass is a matter of survival."

"It is essential to the subsistence culture and food security of Indigenous peoples," she said. "As one of the planet's major carbon sinks, it is also essential for mitigating the climate crisis that threatens us all."

Other advocates from groups that have joined the suit also highlighted how wildlife and the climate could be impacted by what NRDC senior attorney Niel Lawrence called "an outrageous assault on America's environment and all those who benefit from it, now and in future generations."

"Trump's reckless plan to clearcut old-growth trees in the Tongass will irreversibly damage our climate, kill wildlife, and devastate Southeast Alaska communities," warned Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "We're in the midst of climate and wildlife extinction crises and the Tongass is a lifeline for our planet."

As for the impact on local businesses, Dan Blanchard, CEO of UnCruise, a small vessel company providing outdoor recreation experiences, pointed out that "Southeast Alaska hosts two-thirds of all Alaska visitors, making it the most visited region of the state."

"Forest Service lands, particularly inventoried roadless areas, are critical to drawing these visitors, and generate roughly $245 million annually—over two-thirds of Tongass National Forest visitor spending," Blanchard said. "We depend on the ability to market and provide unique recreation experiences, and our clients expect to see 'wild' Alaska and prefer intact natural landscapes."

"Clearcutting and timber road construction would force us to divert our travel routes to avoid seeing or being around clearcuts," he added. "This would negatively affect the outdoor recreation economy and Southeast Alaska's reputation as an adventure travel destination."

According to Earthjustice attorney Kate Glover, "The Trump administration ignored tribes and Alaskans throughout this process, and is instead prioritizing illusive timber industry profits over the interests of Alaska Native people who have stewarded the land since time immemorial, small business operators whose livelihoods depend on an intact forest ecosystem, and everyone who benefits from this national forest's unique ability to serve as a natural buffer against climate change."

Dubbing the Roadless Rule a "landmark achievement in conserving our natural heritage, our climate, and our public resources," Lawrence of NRDC vowed that "we're not going to let Trump get away with this illegal effort to strip America's great temperate rainforest of these vital protections."

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