The Biden government plans to restore environmental protection in Tongass National Forest in Alaska, one of the world’s largest intact, temperate rainforests, which was removed by former President Donald J. Trump.
The government plans to “revoke or replace” a Trump-era rule that has opened up about nine million acres, or more than half of the forest, for logging and road construction, according to a White House document Published Friday.
The Tongass, in southeast Alaska, is home to more than 400 species of game, fish and shellfish, including bald eagles, elk and the world’s highest concentration of black bears. Among its snow peaks, ponds and rivers are stands of red and yellow cedar and Western hemlock, as well as Sitka spruce trees at least 800 years old.
The forest also plays a key role in combating climate change. One of the world’s largest carbon sinks, its trees and soil absorb and store millions of tons of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, where it can trap heat and contribute to global warming.
The national forest has been protected from logging, mining and other development since 2001 by a policy known as the roadless rule, which prevented the construction of the road needed for the other activities.
But last year, Mr. Trump lifted the rule for a large portion of Tongass, and pleased Alaska lawmakers who have been campaigning for the change for years. The move was attacked by environmentalists and the majority of commentators who formally registered opinions with the government.
“USDA acknowledges the Trump administration’s decision on Alaska’s roadless rule was controversial and does not agree with the vast majority of public opinion across the country and among Alaskans,” said Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. , the parent agency of the Forest Service. “We recognize the important role that the forest and its inventories play in roadless areas in communities, and in the economy and culture of Southeast Alaska, as well as climate resilience. Future decisions on the role of the Tongass National Forest should continue to reflect the best interests of Alaska and the country as a whole. ”
The administration will formally announce its intention to review the rule by August, detailing the final plan expected within the next two years.
Alaska senators and governors have long maintained that lifting the roadless protection in their state would provide a much-needed economic boost.
Among them is Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, who has argued in the past that parts of Tongass can be developed responsibly in ways that do not necessarily lead to the loss of large forests. She attacked the roadless rule as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ regulation that harms the timber industry as well as mining, transportation and energy.
It is not clear whether the Biden government intends to completely replace the pathless protection of the Tongass rule and whether it would replace the protection in some areas while others are open to economic development.
Murkowski is also a key player in efforts to negotiate a bilateral agreement on a comprehensive infrastructure bill, and the White House has been careful not to oppose it. Already this year, Mr. Biden, who wants to find a balance between his vows to fight climate change and protect the environment, while also supporting Ms. Murkowski obtained for a signature of legislative efforts, ranging from policies approving the drilling of fossil fuels. some parts of Alaska while banned in others.
Me. Murkowski’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Mike Dunleavy, the Republican governor of Alaska, wrote on Twitter, “Disappointed in the @POTUS latest suppression of AK economic opportunities. From tourism to timber, the vast Tongass National Forest in Alaska holds many opportunities for Alaskans, but the federal government wants to see Alaskans suffer from a lack of jobs and prosperity. ”
“We will use every available tool to alleviate the latest imposition,” he added.
Environmentalists praised the move.
“We welcome this first step in what we hope will be a rapid process to restore complete roadless protection in the Tongass National Forest,” said Ellen Montgomery, Director of Environmental Campaigns for America. “The Trump administration’s refunds were an attack on the Tongass, which is a precious treasure and a beacon of nature. Many trees in the Tongass are older than the United States, and we need to keep them high, because the forest serves as an important bulwark against climate change. It also provides an irreplaceable home for our wildlife. ”
Several climate scientists, working with a group called the Tongass Coalition, have called on the Biden administration to create a strategic national carbon reserve by placing permanent federal protection on all large trees and mature forests in federal lands. They noted that such a proposal could also help Mr. Biden achieves its goal of conserving 30 percent of public lands by 2030.
“To slow down the runaway climate chaos, we need to do two things: get rid of fossil fuels as quickly as possible and store atmospheric carbon,” said Dominick DellaSala, a scientist at the Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit environment. organization. “Bushes are the best in it and Tongass is the champion. But it must come from the president. This is something he can do to quickly move the needle over climate change. ”
In a series of recent decisions regarding mining, drilling and development in Alaska, Mr. Bid a line drawn between conservation and development.
Last month, the Minister of the Interior, Deb Haaland, Ms. Murkowski and the rest of Alaska’s congressional delegation called to let them know she would approve a million-dollar ConocoPhillips oil drilling project at the Alaska National Petroleum Reservation. The project, which Ms. Opposing Haaland when she served in Congress is expected to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for 30 years, locking up decades of new fossil fuel development and receiving praise from Alaska lawmakers.
But two weeks later, the Biden government suspended leases to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move that Ms. Murkowski called ‘outrageous’.