Tongass National Forest, when added to Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, just across Alaska’s southern border, is part of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. In Alaska, Tongass covers 16.7 million acres of pristine wilderness. It’s home to brown bears, salmon, wolves, moose, and bald eagles, among scores of other species, as well as huge stands of ancient old-growth trees. Those old-growth trees are valuable commodities for the timber industry in Alaska.
President Clinton acted to restrict increased logging in the Tongass just days before leaving office in 2001. Since then the forest has largely been protected from large-scale extractive industry. Though there is some tree cutting in the Tongass, serious incursions by logging have been hampered by the Clinton-imposed “roadless rule” which prohibited many forms of road building and timber harvests across huge swaths of national forest land, including in the Tongass. In 2016, the US Forest Service released a plan to totally phase out old-growth logging in the Tongass within a decade. As of now, only a few hundred people make a living logging there.
The Alaskan governor, Mike Dunleavy, as well as Senator Lisa Murkowski, and now it seems, the White House, would like to change that and increase the numbers of people employed in logging in the Tongass. According to the Washington Post, suggestions from Dunleavy and Murkowski to open the area to new logging have convinced the White House to look into rolling back protections of the Tongass. This week, President Trump directed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt the Tongass from logging restrictions imposed by the roadless rule.
Murkowski opposed the 2016 plan to reduce old-growth cutting and has long been opposed to the roadless rule being imposed in Alaska. “The timber industry has declined precipitously,” Murkowski said in a statement. “And it is astonishing that the few remaining mills in our nation’s largest national forest have to constantly worry about running out of supply.”
5.7 million acres of the Tongass have officially been designated as wilderness area and can’t be logged even if the White House undoes the roadless rule, leaving the remaining 9.5 million acres open to the timber industry.
A 2013 study revealed that half of the Tongass’s old-growth forest had been cut down over the last 100 years. It’s unclear how much would be exposed to logging if the White House does indeed open the forest to the timber industry, as the USFS would have to update its management plan. Murkowski has indicated she expects the White House to scrap the roadless rule entirely.
Many Alaskan state officials have bristled at federal rules limiting logging, mining, and road building, while conservationists point to the billions Alaska brings in in tourism dollars, with people drawn to untouched wilderness.
It’s expected that the White House’s plan for the Tongass, authored by Perdue, will be released in the coming months.