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Biden’s national forest order lays groundwork for ‘durable’ Tongass protections, environmental groups say

Environmental groups hope President Joe Biden's executive order could be a step forward to permanent protections for the Tongass.
Published: Apr. 22, 2022 at 4:55 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Earth Day, aimed at protecting the nation’s forests.

“We’re going to work with state and local and tribal governments to map, catalog and then conserve old-growth forests on our public lands — we’re going to do this,” Biden said during a signing ceremony on Friday in Seattle. “These are the forests that store, sequester incredible amounts of carbon, and help us fight climate change.”

Biden has faced criticism for not doing enough to combat climate change with several bills stuck in Congress. In Alaska, legislative leaders and the state’s congressional delegation have criticized the president for an energy policy seen to be targeting the state’s resources industries.

Matt Jackson, climate program manager at Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said it was exciting to hear the president talk about carbon sequestration and the value of old-growth forests, like in the Tongass National Forest, for fishing and tourism.

“We hope that this executive order is a stepping stone to durable and lasting protections for all old-growth and mature forests,” Jackson said.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources released a statement, saying that state officials are “pleased” the Biden administration wants to work with the state of Alaska in some forestry-related areas like wildfire mitigation. But, there are differences of opinion between the Biden administration and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration when it comes to old-growth or mature trees.

“As the trend toward growing larger, older trees in young growth-managed forests continues, mature trees, once they reach harvest age, must remain available for harvest,” the statement from the state natural resources department says. “We must commit to managed forests, as opposed to preserving all mature trees.”

A 2021 study found that the Tongass stores over 40% of the carbon held by the nation’s forests. Over five million acres of “productive” old growth remains in the forest.

Environmental protections in the Tongass have seesawed back and forth over decades of legal fights and different presidential administrations.

The Roadless Rule was first issued in 2001 under President Bill Clinton, conserving nearly 60 million acres of U.S. forests. The rule was effectively overturned for the Tongass in 2020 by President Donald Trump.

Supporters of development argued that Trump’s plan would open up over 9 million acres of the 17-million acre forest for tourism, mining and logging — creating jobs and economic opportunity. Critics expressed concern that significantly more logging would negatively impact subsistence fishing, hunting and existing tourism.

Biden announced a plan last June to restore the Roadless Rule for the Tongass. A public comment period wrapped up in January and a final decision is expected later this year for the nation’s largest forest.

Since the Roadless Rule was issued in 2001, all Alaska governors have opposed it for the Tongass, arguing that it is helping to end logging in Southeast Alaska and that it costs jobs. Dunleavy said it is a “regulatory relic” of the 1990s.

“Alaskans deserve access to the resources that the Tongass provides — jobs, renewable energy resources, and tourism, not a government plan that treats human beings within a working forest like an invasive species,” Dunleavy said through a prepared statement last year.

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