On Friday, the Biden administration revealed environmental restoration plans that are preventing logging and mining in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, which the Trump administration had abandoned. The 17 million acres in southeast Alaska – the largest national forest in the United States – have been a political battlefield for over two decades, vacillating between the interests of the logging industry and climate activists.
In 2001, President Bill Clinton passed the "Roadless Rule," which banned road construction on 60 million acres of woodland in the United States and severely restricted commercial logging and mining. But in October 2020, then-President Donald Trump lifted those safeguards when he exempted the Tongass Forest from the rule and did what many developers and politicians in Alaska had called for since the Clinton era. But this turnaround did not last long.
The Biden government promised to reverse harmful policies
Since campaigning, President Joe Biden has been vocal about climate action, especially in contrast to the guidelines passed by the Trump administration. After the US under Trump abandoned the Paris Agreement and made the largest reduction in protected areas in US history, Biden took office to repair the damage. On the same day that Biden was sworn in, January 20, 2021, he signed an executive order entitled "Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis," which aims to reduce climate change and review and Revoke action points set by the previous administration.
One of the most notable was the March 2019 approval revocation for the Keystone XL pipeline. The project, which began in 2008 and was only officially closed this month, has faced setbacks in every phase of its development. The Keystone XL was canceled by the Obama administration in 2015 and renewed in 2017 when Trump invited TC Energy, the Canadian developer of the pipeline, to apply for a re-approval, and is a perfect example of the back and forth that climate policy can have, depending on who is in office.
The Tongass National Forest is another example. From a developer's perspective, Alaska's natural resources make it a gold mine. Its ancient forests make it ideal for timber harvesting, its coastal plains are rich in prospective drilling sites for oil and natural gas, and developing these opportunities could boost the state's economy. No details have been disclosed of how the reversal of the "roadless rule" will be carried out other than with the intent to "suspend or replace" it, but Alaskan officials are aware of the economic loss and have been vocal about the change.
"The Biden administration's announcement is an unacceptable blow to federal politics just months after the Trump administration enacted a thoroughly revised final rule that strikes the right balance between preserving the land we treasure and promoting opportunity for hard-working Alaskans, "said Senator. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said in a joint statement that included comments from fellow Republicans from Alaska, Senator Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young.
Disappointed about the recent suppression of AK's economic opportunities by @POTUS. From tourism to timber, Alaska's great Tongass National Forest offers many opportunities for Alaskans, but the federal government wants Alaskans to suffer from the lack of jobs and wealth. #akgov #alaska
– Governor Mike Dunleavy (@GovDunleavy) June 11, 2021
Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, Likewise expressed his rejection of the Biden action on Twitter and later he added, "We will use every tool available to postpone the final imposition."
Biden is currently attending the annual G7 summit taking place in Cornwall, England this year. World leaders are expected to speak about environmental policy on Sunday.
The effects of logging could be dramatic on the “lungs” of North America
While politicians paint the picture of a repressive federal government that would deny normal Alaskans access to "jobs and wealth," the narrative sounds a bit hollow when compared to actual public feedback. In 2019, the US Forest Service published a summary of over 140,000 comments from the public on the "No Road Rule", the overwhelming majority of whom supported restrictions on forest development. Indeed, one of the main reasons the public felt that the "roadless rule" should be maintained was that it is vital to the tourism and fishing industries.
According to research by an economic development organization called the Southeast Conference, Alaska's lumbering industry (along with warehousing, utilities, and transportation) provided only 4 percent of Alaskans' jobs in 2019, versus the 18 percent employed in tourism. Commercial fishing, tourism, and recreation are the fastest growing employment sectors in southeast Alaska, according to the study. The Southeast Conference has not made an official statement, but its Executive Director, Robert Venables, endorsed Governor Dunleavy's statement accusing several governments of "ping-pong" with Alaskans and state resources.
In addition to creating jobs, the Tongass, the largest national forest in the United States, plays a significant ecological role in absorbing the carbon produced in the United States. According to National Geographic, the temperate rainforest absorbs about 8 percent of the pollution produced in the United States. "While tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Tongass is the lungs of North America," Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist of the Earth Island Institute's Wildlife Heritage Project, told the Washington Post. In fact, the United States Geological Survey recently estimated that carbon storage could increase by up to 27 percent by the end of the century if no trees are lost to deforestation and the land in the Tongass is untreated.
Brown bears fishing for salmon on Baranof Island in the Tongass National Forest.
Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket / Getty Images
The Tongass is also home to a thriving wildlife population, but Trump's abolition of "roadless rule" puts that at risk. On land, the state of Alaska is home to 95 percent of America's brown bear population, and the Tongass is specifically home to the highest concentration of brown bears on the planet, while the forest's 17,000 miles of clean fresh water provide optimal spawning conditions for wild salmon. Because of its high populations, the Tongass is sometimes referred to as the "salmon forest," and since it produces $ 60 million wild salmon annually, the name is not far-fetched. But without the “roadless rule” this might have changed. Logging around a stream leads to runoff such as mud or debris into the water that can choke developing eggs, while dams, often used to maneuver logs in waterways, disorient the fish and disrupt their natural migration patterns.
The damage to the Tongass goes beyond the statistics of the indigenous people of Alaska
While this is a loss that can hit any Alaskan, it is for Alaskan Natives, the loss of wild salmon and the forests they live in mean much more than a dwindling source of food. 23 percent of the region's population come from the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes, who are fighting for recognition and better treatment of their ancestral land, which also includes the extensive Tongass Forest.
While the logging industry threatens food sources, cultural resources such as Western red and Alaskan yellow cedars, which many communities use to make traditional regalia, baskets, and totem poles, are also threatened. “Cedar is the chain in the basket of what we are as a people. We meander around the cedar tree, staying connected, strong and able to pass on the tools and resources for the next generation, ”said Marina Anderson, a Haida and Tlingit woman who serves as tribe administrator for the Kasaan Organized Village. in an article for Juneau Empire.
Anderson recently helped organize a workshop on the cultural use of forest resources taught by Alaskan Indians for United States Forest Service (USFS) staff. For years, the USFS has been supplying manufacturers with commercial wood from the Tongass without communicating with the indigenous people. The workshop aimed to teach USFS staff how to distinguish different types of trees that can be used to make canoes and totem poles, or trees that are rare and should be protected. While this type of intercultural exchange is not aimed at the heavyweights of industry or politics, it does have an impact on the people who do the work.