Biden to Restore Protections for Tongass National Forest in Alaska
WASHINGTON – The Biden administration set to restore full environmental protection to Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, reversing an attempt by former President Donald J. Trump to introduce logging and mining into pristine sections of one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests.
The move, announced Thursday by the Agriculture Department, comes a month after the administration announced it would “repeal or replace” a rule promulgated under Mr. Trump to open about nine million acres, or more than half of the forest, under development. This rule had removed the protections in place since 2001.
The Biden administration’s Tongass strategy includes a new safeguard: an end to large-scale logging of old-growth timber on all 16 million acres of forest.
Alaskan lawmakers hoped the administration could restore protections to parts of the fragile forest, but leave part open for logging and other activities.
But in a statement Thursday morning, the Department of Agriculture, home to the United States Forest Service, wrote that it was restoring all protections to restore “stability and certainty” to the fragile forest.
The vast wilderness of Southeast Alaska is home to more than 400 species of wildlife, fish, and crustaceans, including nesting bald eagles, moose, and the world’s largest concentration of black bears. Nestled between its snow-capped peaks, fjords and tumultuous rivers are stands of red and yellow cedar and western hemlock, as well as Sitka spruce that is at least 800 years old.
The Biden administration’s Tongass plan also includes $ 25 million in federal spending for sustainable local development in Alaska, for projects to improve the health of the forest.
This money appears to be designed in part to appease Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who now plays a key role in negotiating the bipartisan $ 579 billion infrastructure bill that President Biden sees as crucial to his agenda. economic. She had personally asked senior administration officials to leave parts of Tongass open for economic development.
“Obviously, my strong and strong preference for an exemption has been that this no-road rule should not apply to all of the nine million acres,” Ms Murkowski said in an interview last month. . “We feel like we are banging our heads against the wall politically, from the people who live there in these small communities trying to figure out what their economic opportunities might be. “
The other Alaska senator, Dan Sullivan, also a Republican, called the $ 25 million “a gain for killing opportunities for sustained economic development in the Southeast” by “further starving our lumber industry. supply”.
Mr Biden is seeking to implement the most ambitious climate agenda envisioned by a US president. As record drought, wildfires and heat waves hamper Western states, Mr Biden aims to rekindle and strengthen protections canceled by Mr Trump and reduce the pollution causing climate change.
This fall, Mr Biden plans to attend a United Nations conference of world leaders in Scotland to argue that after four years in which the US president mocked climate science, the United States is a leader in the fight against global warming.
Environmentalists said the decision to fully restore Tongass protections could be a step in making the case happen.
“It is the Biden administration that is squarely on the path to reclaiming climate leadership, as it heads to the Glasgow summit this fall,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of Natural Resources. Defense Council, an advocacy group.
Forests play an important role in climate protection. Scientists point out that Tongass benefits billions of people across the planet who are unlikely to set foot there: it is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, storing the equivalent of around 8 percent of carbon stored in all forests in the lower 48 states combined.
Much of this carbon is locked in five million acres of ancient trees, spread throughout the forest. Many of these trees have been absorbing carbon from the atmosphere for over 1,000 years.
For this reason, scientists also welcomed the administration’s new decision to end large-scale logging of old timber in the Tongass, even in sections that are not subject to the new protections limiting the construction of roads and other developments.
“As part of Trump’s plan to cut down this old growth forest, we would have emitted the carbon equivalent of 50,000 new vehicles on the road per year,” said Dominick DellaSala, a scientist at the Earth Island Institute, an organization environmental nonprofit. “So now the forest is doing its best role, which is to protect the climate. Tongass is the lung of North America.
Native American tribes who claim the forest as their ancestral homeland applauded the restoration of protections.
“This is one of the first steps we have seen towards the racial equity promised to our indigenous communities by the Biden administration,” said Marina Anderson, administrator of the organized village of Kasaan, Ketchikan, Alaska.
“We have a lot on the table – the forest is everything for us,” she said. “Everything we have used or created comes from the forest: our means of transport, our tools, our weapons. “
Republicans and Democrats fought for the Tongass for 20 years. The forest was heavily exploited in the 1960s and 1970s, but in 2001 President Bill Clinton adopted the “no-road rule” which blocked the construction of roads necessary for logging and mining in much of the region. Forest.
Barely three months before stepping down, Mr. Trump exempted the entire forest from the “no-road rule,” offering a victory to Republican leaders in Alaska who argued that the southeastern part of their state had need the economic boost that logging and other developments would bring. This decision has been beset by environmentalists and the majority of commentators who have officially registered their views with the government.
However, no new logging or construction has taken place in the forest in the meantime. Partly, experts said, because it was widely expected that Mr. Biden would reinstate protections soon after taking office.
It remains possible that a future Republican administration will again lift the protections.
Ms Murkowski said the yo-yo aspect of the Tongass policy is difficult for Alaskans.
“It’s hard for the communities, it’s hard to plan,” she said. “There’s a local bank that’s based there and takes it as best you can, you know. How do you know where you are going to invest when you have such uncertainty that has lasted for so long? We must try to put an end to this.
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