Despite opposition from environmental and indigenous groups, the Trump administration took a major step on Friday toward exempting the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska from a 2001 rule preventing commercial logging and other development.
After nearly two years of input and consultation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its final environmental impact statement, one of the last steps in removing protections under the Roadless Rule from the virtually untouched public land.
The Roadless Rule, issued by President Bill Clinton in January 2001, prohibits road building and commercial logging in 58 million acres of U.S. forests, including 9.2 million acres of the Tongass.
The Tongass serves as an enormous carbon sink, storing an amount of carbon equivalent to taking 650,000 cars off the road annually, Andy Moderow, Alaska director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement.
"Why, with our climate in crisis and Alaska experiencing climate impacts more acutely than most, are we even discussing chopping down a natural climate solution and a regional economic powerhouse just to ship [timber] overseas?" Moderow said. "The timber industry is a relic of the past, and today, we should be focused on what kind of world we leave to our kids."
A draft environmental impact statement in October 2019 outlined six alternatives for modifying the Roadless Rule with their respective environmental impacts. With the release of the final EIS, the USDA selected the most extreme alternative, fully exempting the Tongass from the rule.
Some time after a 30-day waiting period, the record of decision will be published by the secretary of agriculture. Once the record of decision is finalized, environmental groups like Earthjustice will likely sue.
"Earthjustice has spent decades in court defending the Tongass," Kate Glover, the nonprofit environmental law group's Juneau-based attorney said in a statement, "and we will use every tool available to continue defending this majestic and irreplaceable national forest."
The three members of Alaska's congressional delegation—all Republicans—issued a statement welcoming the final environmental impact statement.
"This is a good day, and one that has been long in the making," Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) said in the statement. "I look forward to continuing to fight on behalf of our state's right to manage our own resources."
Environmentalists and tribal governments have opposed opening the 16.7 million acre Tongass National Forest to logging. The Roadless Rule covers about 55 percent of the forest.
Nine Alaska native groups filed a petition with the USDA in July to stop the removal of protections for the forest, which some native groups rely on for hunting, fishing and other resources.
Alaska's congressional representatives argue that the Roadless Rule is a federal imposition that restricts the local economy from logging, mining and hydropower development.
"For nearly two decades, the Roadless Rule has stifled opportunities for Alaskans ... to harvest timber, connect communities, develop minerals and build vital energy projects," Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said in a statement. "With this new Tongass-specific regulation, the Forest Service has struck a better balance between conservation and fostering opportunities for Alaskans to make a living."
Critics of the decision say removing the Roadless Rule to allow timber harvesting is unlikely to benefit the Alaska economy.
"Stripping protections from the Tongass National Forest is a shortsighted move that favors clear-cut logging—an industry that is not economically viable in southeast Alaska," Ryan Richards, senior policy analyst for public lands at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement. "Rather than logging one of the best and biggest carbon reserves in the nation, we should be conserving this special place and boosting the job-creating industries, such as fishing and tourism, that it supports."
Environmentalists saw this latest removal of protection as the most recent in a long list of anti-environmental policies pushed through during the Trump administration. Dismantling the Tongass forest protection despite the opposition of indigenous communities reflects "everything that's wrong with how President Trump has managed our nation's public lands and forests," Jayson O'Neill, director of the Western Values Project, said in a statement.
Citizens for the Republic, a conservative political action committee, has also voiced opposition over the past year to removing protections from the Tongass, arguing that resources extracted from the forest would largely benefit China.
The final environmental impact statement "paves the way for a decision that will inflict irrevocable damage on a pristine and large portion of our country's wilderness," the group said in a statement.