Conservationists are bracing for a major victory. Friday, the Forest Service said it would be “Repeal or replace” a throwback to the Trump era that allows companies to build roads and other infrastructure in much of America’s largest national forest. It could be the biggest victory for public lands the Biden administration has yet delivered, if the details come to fruition.
Three months before stepping down, President Trump opened up more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, to road building, logging, l mining and other developments. The move nullified protections under the Alaska Roadless Rule, which President Bill Clinton enacted in 2001. The new development was first reported by the Washington post.
“Taking an ax on the protections of Tongass old-growth forests was one of the most reckless and irresponsible environmental setbacks of the previous administration. Indigenous communities, hunters and anglers, tourism and fishing industries, those who care about protecting our planet’s biodiversity and climate, have all opposed the removal of road protections on the Tongass, ”said Andy Moderow, director of the Alaska Wilderness League, in a statement.
If Biden puts the 20-year-old protections back on the books, it could mean the Tongass will once again be protected from the destructive industry, protecting the people and wildlife that call it home. But as Moderow pointed out, the White House did not say exactly what protections it will put in place.
“We applaud the commitment of the Biden administration and the Forest Service to address this setback,” Moderow said, “but also want to make it clear that a full restoration of road-free protections is a necessity.”
Forests play a crucial role in climate efforts, as they sequester 10 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent each year. The United States is home to 154 national forests, but recent research find Tongass holds 44% of the total carbon stored by everyone. Cutting down trees in Tongass for timber or to free up space for development removes this essential source of sequestration, which could turn the carbon sink into a carbon source.
Development would also erode the incredible biodiversity. The Tongass is teeming with old cedar, spruce and hemlock, as well as five varieties of Pacific salmon, grizzly bears, Sitka deer, bald eagles and rare varieties of wolves and birds around wood pigeons.
Several indigenous communities, including the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, also make their homes in the Tongass National Forest and depend on it for their livelihoods. Development could endanger sites long considered sacred by Indigenous peoples and threaten their water supply and ability to practice traditional cultural practices.
Last January, a coalition of Indigenous organizations, Alaskan businesses and environmental organizations for follow-up the U.S. government to try to stop the Trump administration from removing protections. Hopefully Biden immediately restores all protections to the forest, rendering this matter obsolete.
Biden should go even further and protect land across the United States On the first day of his tenure, Biden announced a hiatus on new oil and gas leases on public lands, and this month he announced a plan to suspend oil and gas leases in the Arctic National. Wildlife Refuge, undoing a policy Trump succeeded last year. But last month his administration also said he would defend another massive Trump-era oil and gas drilling project in the Arctic, and writer Branko Marcetic recently reported that the administration has approved nearly 1,179 drilling permits on federal lands until now.
Obviously, Biden has a long way to go to show he’s serious about conservation. Relaunching Tongass protections would be a good start.