WASHINGTON – The Trump administration Tuesday proposed allowing logging on more than half of Alaska's 16.7 million-acre Tongass National Forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in North America.
President Donald Trump instructed federal officials to reverse long-standing limits on tree cutting at the request of Alaska's top elected officials on the grounds that it will boost the local economy. But critics say that protections under the "roadless rule," finalized just before President Bill Clinton left office in 2001, are critical to protecting the region's lucrative salmon fishery and tourism operations.
The U.S. Forest Service said it would publish a draft environmental impact statement this week that, if enacted, would exempt the Tongass from the roadless rule.
The Forest Service had initially planned to make more modest changes to nearly 9.5 million acres there, where roads are prohibited. Under the administration's "preferred alternative," that entire area would be open for development.
Congress has designated another 5.7 million acres of the forest as wilderness, which must remain off limits to such activities under any circumstances.
Tongass, which lies in southeast Alaska, is home to massive old growth stands and provides habitat for a range of wildlife. While President George W. Bush sought to reverse Clinton's roadless policy in Alaska and elsewhere, the protections were ultimately upheld in federal court.
In a statement, Forest Service officials said the plan — which lists five other alternatives that include greater restrictions on logging — will be subject to public comment for 60 days. Those comments "will inform the department" as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue "moves toward a final decision," the officials added.
But Trump, who has spoken with Alaska Gov. Michael Dunleavy, a Republican, multiple times on the subject, has asked Perdue to exempt the Tongass from logging limits, according to multiple federal officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Alaska's congressional delegation, all of whom are Republican, has also asked Trump to expand development in the Tongass.
Timber provides a small portion of southeastern Alaska's jobs — just under 1%, according to the regional development organization, Southeast Conference, compared with seafood processing's 8% and tourism's 17%.
Eric Jorgensen, managing attorney in the Juneau office of the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said in an e-mail that his group would challenge the move in court.
"President Trump's attack on the Tongass National Forest threatens an irreplaceable national treasure," Jorgensen said. "The millions of ancient trees across this temperate rainforest serve as the greatest carbon sanctuary in the U.S. national forest system, helping us all as a counterweight against the climate crisis. This ecologically rich landscape and critical wildlife habitat will be lost forever if industry is allowed to clear-cut our national forest."