Jun 11, 2021
Indigenous rights and climate action groups on Friday welcomed the Biden administration's announcement that the Department of Agriculture will "repeal or replace" former President Donald Trump's assault on Alaska's Tongass National Forest, in which a 20-year-old rule protecting wild lands was revoked three months before Trump left office.
Trump's rollback of the 2001 Roadless Rule was made final last October and sparked fury among conservation groups including Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which noted that the protection of the Tongass National Forest is vital for biodiversity as well as absorbing carbon emissions.
"This majestic wild space, which is home to species from the Prince of Wales flying squirrels and Sitka black-tailed deer to any of the thousands of migratory birds, would be forever changed for the worse if roads and logging equipment were allowed to disrupt it." --Ellen Montgomery, Environment America
The decision to revoke the Roadless Rule, which barred road construction in the country's national forests, left 9.2 million acres vulnerable to logging and other destructive and extractive uses.
"We applaud this first step in what we hope will be a swift process to restore full Roadless Rule protections to the Tongass National Forest," said Ellen Montgomery, public lands campaign director for Environment America. "The Trump administration's rollbacks were an attack on the Tongass, which is a priceless treasure and a beacon of nature... This majestic wild space, which is home to species from the Prince of Wales flying squirrels and Sitka black-tailed deer to any of the thousands of migratory birds, would be forever changed for the worse if roads and logging equipment were allowed to disrupt it."
As the largest forest in the United States' National Forest system and one of the largest intact temperate rainforests on the planet, the Tongass is responsible for holding (pdf) 44% of all carbon stored by the country's forests according to Wild Heritage and the Earth Island Institute.
"Even if you live thousands of miles from the Tongass National Forest, you still benefit from its unique ability to fight climate change," said Earthjustice, which filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration after it finalized the rollback of the Roadless Rule.
Friends of the Earth celebrated what it called a "huge win" for the forest and the planet.
\u201cEven if you live thousands of miles from the Tongass National Forest, you still benefit from its unique ability to fight climate change. https://t.co/Uxqb10lwgK\u201d— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice) 1623416402
"Today's action is a much-needed step toward ensuring Alaska's forest wildlands, and the communities, economies, and wildlife that depend on them, remain protected, and that the Tongass remains a critical tool in the fight against climate change," said Andrea Feniger, Alaska Chapter director for the Sierra Club. "Now, we urge the administration to act quickly to reinstate protections for the Tongass National Forest once and for all."
The Women/s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International noted that the forest is also home to more than 400 species of marine and land animals and ensures food sovereignty for Indigenous communities in Alaska, including the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples--whose traditional territories lie within the forest.
"The process to repeal the Roadless Rule has been mired in corporate interests that do not represent the public but only seek to exploit the land and open the forest to further logging and mining interests," said WECAN Tongass representative Rebekah Sawers.
"The Biden administration's announcement is a welcome step forward, and the sooner the administration gets rid of the Roadless Rule exemption in the Tongass, the better," Sawers added. "Protecting the Tongass means supporting the growth of local business, ensuring community access to traditional foods and medicines, allowing the forest to heal from massive logging in the past while mitigating further climate chaos."
The USDA plans to publish the proposed rule in August. Matt Herrick, communications director for the department, told the Washington Post that Trump's rollback "did not align with the overwhelming majority of public opinion across the country and among Alaskans."
"We recognize the vital role the Forest and its inventoried roadless areas play in communities, and in the economy and culture of Southeast Alaska, as well as for climate resilience," Herrick said.
Conservation groups urged the Biden administration to move urgently to finalize the repeal or replacement of Trump's rule.
"The Trump-era decision to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the roadless rule is one of the very worst pieces of forest policy we've seen in decades, and the sooner the Biden administration gets rid of the exemption and restores the national roadless rule, the better," said Meredith Trainor, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
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