Biden administration officials said Wednesday that the forest is vital to both wildlife habitat – especially fish – and combating climate change. The government’s decision, through the US Department of Agriculture, will repeal Alaska’s 2020 No Roads Rule, making it again illegal for logging companies to build roads and cut and remove timber across more than 9.3 million acres of forest.
“The Tongass National Forest is critical to conserving biodiversity and tackling the climate crisis,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “Restoring the roadless protections listens to the voices of the tribal nations and people of Southeast Alaska, while recognizing the importance of fisheries and tourism to the region’s economy.”
The rule is scheduled for publication in the Federal Register on Friday and will take effect immediately, a department spokesman said.
The forest is known for abundant salmon, towering fjords and ancient trees, which are essential for capturing and storing carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change, the department said. Tongass trees absorb at least 8% of all carbon stored in all Lower 48 forests.
Alaska’s governor and Republicans in his congressional delegation had already criticized the proposal, first announced in November 2021. They said it would hurt the logging industry.
“This decision is a great loss to Alaskans,” Governor Mike Dunleavy said Wednesday in a tweet. “Alaskans deserve access to the resources the Tongass provides – jobs, renewable energy resources and tourism, not a government plan that treats humans within a functioning forest as an invasive species.”
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But advocates for more protection and the Biden administration have stressed that the forest plays a big role in supporting Alaska’s fishing industry, a much larger employer in the state than the logging industry. Scientists have identified the Tongass as an ecological oasis providing essential habitat for wild Pacific trout and salmon.
Restoring the protections was popular with Alaska Native leaders, environmentalists and tour operators, who said preserving the region’s remaining wilderness will sustain the state’s economy in the long term. The Forest Service received about 112,000 comment papers, most in favor of restoring roadless protections, the Department of Agriculture said on Wednesday.
Tongass habitat is also crucial for the Sitka black-tailed deer, among many other species. It has the highest density of brown bears in North America, and some of its trees are between 300 and 1,000 years old and as tall as 17-story buildings.
“The Tongass Roadless Rule is important to everyone,” said Joel Jackson, president of Kake Organized Village, which sits on the edge of the forest on an island south of the capital, Juneau.
“Old wood is a carbon sink, one of the best in the world,” Jackson said in a statement. “It is important to OUR WAY OF LIFE – the streams, salmon, deer and all the animals and plants in the forest.”
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