Tongass National Forest

A brown bear fishing for salmon in a creek at Pavlof Harbor in Chatham Strait, Tongass National Forest in Alaska. (Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Biden Applauded for Reversing Trump Assault on 'Priceless' Tongass National Forest

"The Tongass National Forest's indispensable habitats serve as home to a multitude of species and also play a vital role in helping fight global warming," said one conservation advocate.

Environmental protection groups on Friday applauded the United States Department of Agriculture's proposal to reinstate a 20-year-old rule protecting North America's largest temperate rainforest, the Tongass National Forest in Alaska--which climate scientists say plays a crucial role in keeping carbon from entering the atmosphere.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the administration plans to restore the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, commonly known as the "roadless rule," which was originally put in place by the Clinton administration in 2001, aiming to protect about 9.3 million acres in the forest from development by loggers and other industries.

"We need to continue to protect old forests and big trees, such as those in the Tongass, to ensure our future includes essential species and a livable climate."

If finalized, the rule will protect more than half of the nearly 17 million-acre forest, which contains about five million acres of old-growth trees.
Alaska Native leaders and conservation groups have long demanded the federal government maintain the roadless rule and other protections for the forest, which ensures food sovereignty for tribes including the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, and provides a habitat for more than 400 species of fish and other wildlife.
"Having protections for close to 10 million acres of old growth means that we have the resources needed to continue teaching our traditional practices, continue harvesting our traditional foods and medicines and to not only prosper as Indigenous people, but to come to the world's aid right now so people can learn our ways of living and our ways of being," Marina Anderson, tribal administrator for the Organized Village of Kasaan, toldThe Washington Post. "In the future, we would hope that tribal governments are listened to, and properly consulted with, in the beginning."
The roadless rule was rescinded by former President Donald Trump last fall--a decision that was condemned as "vandalism" by climate activist and author Bill McKibben. The gutting of the rule left the forest vulnerable to the pollution that comes with logging and road building as well as soil erosion and the destruction of natural habitats.
Tongass also serves as an important carbon sink for North America, with its trees absorbing 8% of the carbon stored in all of the continental United States' forests combined. More than 95% of the public comments submitted to the U.S. Forest Service regarding Trump's decision were in favor of the roadless rule.

"We applaud the Biden administration for listening to the voices of Southeast Alaska communities who have been relentless in their advocacy to protect the livelihoods, local economies, and wildlife that depend on the Tongass," said Sierra Club Alaska chapter director Andrea Feniger in a statement. "The Tongass is a priceless resource and a critical tool in the fight against climate change, and this action brings us one step closer to ensuring that our forest wildlands remain protected for good."

Environment America said it was "thrilled" with the administration's proposal.

"We've had our fingers crossed, hoping this would be announced soon," said Ellen Montgomery, public lands director for the group. "The Tongass National Forest's indispensable habitats serve as home to a multitude of species and also play a vital role in helping fight global warming. We need to continue to protect old forests and big trees, such as those in the Tongass, to ensure our future includes essential species and a livable climate."

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Waterfall on Baranof Island, Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.

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Vilsack's announcement came four months after the administration said it would ban large-scale logging for the entire 16 million acres of forest and invest $25 million in sustainable community development to improve the health of the forest. Officials also announced plans in July to cancel a timber sale from three major old-growth forests, including ones on Prince of Wales Island and Revillagigedo Island in the Tongass, while continuing to auction off newer trees.

The proposal also comes days after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled against the state of Alaska in its attempt to have the roadless rule vacated, with the court saying it would be "entirely inappropriate" to issue an opinion pushing the USDA to keep Trump's rollback of the rule intact.

By reversing the rule, Alaska Wilderness League said the administration "will preserve a natural climate solution that benefits communities around the globe," and help support Alaska's economy--contrary to claims by the logging industry and its supporters.

"The Tongass is the linchpin of Southeast Alaska's economy, supporting a $2 billion sustainable economy and more than one-quarter of jobs in the region," said Andy Moderow, Alaska director for the group. "The forest attracts people from around the world for world-class recreation, hunting, and sport and commercial salmon fishing. And it remains as essential now as it has for thousands of years to Indigenous communities that continue to rely on the forest for their cultural and subsistence traditions."

"We look forward to the upcoming public process and working with the administration to make sure the diverse constituencies of the Tongass are heard and that America's largest national forest and one of the largest remaining temperate rainforests in the world remains intact," he continued.

Vilsack's proposal kicked off a 60-day public comment period, and advocates urged Americans to speak out on behalf of the Tongass.

"We hope that Americans head to their computers and submit lots of public comments in favor of both this forest and the idea that we need more nature," said Montgomery.

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