Biden administration seeks to overturn Trump-era removal of roadless protections at Tongass National Forest
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Biden administration shared its plan to potentially overturn the previous administration’s decision to remove the Alaska Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest, which allowed the building of roads and logging in the area.
The U.S Department of Agriculture said it will “repeal or replace” the Trump administration’s reversal of the 2001 Roadless Rule for the national forest, according to the current administration’s new regulatory agenda. The agenda added that the USDA would make a decision by August.
Reacting to the news, Gov. Mike Dunleavy took to social media on Friday vowing to oppose the Biden administration’s decision.
When the Trump administration made its decision to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the ‘Roadless Rule,’ Dunleavy’s office issued a press release sharing its support. Industries that benefited from the change also expressed their approval of the decision.
Approximately 9.3 million acres of land controlled by the federal government were opened for timber harvest, road construction and reconstruction after the final rule was placed in the Federal Register in October last year.
The following January, a collection of tribal and environmental groups, fishermen and members of the tourism industry filed a lawsuit against the USDA’s Roadless Rule exemption decision.
In a joint statement, the offices of Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young denounced the president’s plans to reinstate roadless protections inside of the Tongass. The news also comes just 10 days after Biden suspended oil and gas leases for lands located inside of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Young also issued a personal challenge to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
“Come to Alaska; visit Southeast,” Young said in the statement. “Before making a decision on behalf of my constituents, experience the tremendous social and economic burden the Roadless Rule has imposed on them up close.’ The COVID-19 pandemic has already harmed our economy, and today’s decision is yet another nail in the coffin for economic opportunity in Southeast.”
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Executive Director Meredith Trainor said that in her experience, most communities in the Southeast are not equating roadless protections with overbearing negative economic impacts.
“There’s just not anyone really talking about logging,” Trainor said. “I think a lot of people in Alaska are talking about moving beyond just natural resource extraction and more about sustainable rural economies.”
By email, an official statement from Andy Moderow, director of the Alaska Wilderness League, applauded the newly announced plans to reinstate protections.
“Taking an axe to Tongass old-growth protections was among the most reckless and irresponsible of the previous administration’s environmental rollbacks,” he said. “Indigenous communities, hunters and anglers, the tourism and fishing industries, those who care about protecting our planet’s biodiversity and climate — all opposed removing roadless protections on the Tongass.”
While other environmental groups have shared similar statements, Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri Feige said Biden’s actions go against his administration’s climate-friendly platform.
“Locking it up for what seems to be political reasons ... That’s only going to result in the ultimate destruction of that resource,” Feige said. “That’s going to occur either through fire or the natural degradation that we’ve seen for the last several years, at least through the last decade — under that Roadless Rule practice.”
The construction of new roads inside of America’s largest national forest was temporarily halted earlier this year, but there’s no clear timeline for how long it might take for permanent protections to be put into effect.
Biden’s administration has also not specified whether it plans to issue a total repeal of Trump’s 2020 exemption order — or if partial protections will be implemented in place of the Roadless Rule.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include reactions from Alaska’s lawmakers and other community representatives.
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