Biden officials move to reinstate Alaska roadless rule, overturning Trump policy

The Biden administration said Friday that it would “repeal or replace” a rule allowing roads and other types of development in more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, reviving 20-year old protections Donald Trump had stripped three months before leaving office.

© Karen Dillman/USDA Forest Service Vegetation in Paradise Valley, Petersburg Ranger District, Tongass National Forest, Alaska, in August 2011.

The move was outlined in the administration’s new regulatory agenda. The notice from the White House said the change was consistent with the president’s Jan. 27 executive order, “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.” The Agriculture Department expects to publish the proposed rule in August, the notice said.

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Coming shortly after officials suspended drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the step highlights how the state has become a climate and conservation battleground since Joe Biden became president. With its vast natural resources and focus on extracting commodities such as oil, timber and metals, Alaska often finds itself at odds with Washington when Democrats control the White House.

Republicans pushed to open up remote and largely-pristine areas in Alaska to drilling, mining and logging while Trump was in office, from its southeast edge to the western Arctic and the Bering Sea. Biden and his deputies have worked to freeze or unravel many of these policies during the last four and-a-half months. In April, it took the unusual step of postponing the effective date of public lands orders allowing mining on 11 million acres in Alaska for two years.

The two political parties have fought over the Tongass’ fate for two decades. Just before leaving office in 2001, Bill Clinton finalized the so-called “roadless rule,” which barred road construction in 58.5 million acres of national forest. George W. Bush held a handful of timber sales in the Tongass before a federal judge reinstated the Clinton rule.

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Sonny Perdue, Trump’s agriculture secretary, sought to forge a compromise that would have protected most of the Tongass’ 9.3 million acres. But he was overruled by Trump, who decided to exempt the entire area after meeting privately with Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) aboard Air Force One during a stopover at Elmendorf Air Force Base.

© Don MacDougall/USDA Forest Service The sky and mountains are reflected in the water in Kootznoowoo Wilderness, Admiralty Island National Monument, Tongass National Forest, Alaska, in April 2012.

Environmentalists and many in Alaska’s recreation industry have argued that roadless protections are essential to protect the Tongass, which ranks as one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests. While parts of the forest was heavily logged in the 1960s and 70s, its trees — many of which are hundreds of years old — absorb at least 8 percent of all the carbon stored in the entire Lower 48′s forests combined.

Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood, whose conservation group represents anglers across the country, said in a phone interview that a quarter of the salmon and steelhead that swim along the Pacific Coast spend time in the Tongass’ rivers and streams. “It’s a fish factory,” he said.

The region also has a thriving tourism industry. Cruise ship traffic, which is not dependent on roads and ranks as a major economic driver in southeast Alaska, dried up last summer and has yet to come back. But visitors are again flocking there in smaller groups, providing business for local operators.

“Beautiful wild places are Alaska’s competitive advantage in the adventure tourism market,” said Alaska Seaplane Adventures manager Dan Kirkwood, who supports the roadless rule, in a phone interview.

But Alaska’s elected leaders have argued that the limits on roadbuilding impede not only logging but other industrial activities, including mining, that would bolster a region that’s been battered by the pandemic.

In a petition to the Agriculture Department during the Trump administration, the state wrote that the roadless rule and subsequent 2016 management plan “each independently restrict road construction and timber harvest to such a degree as to have devastating socioeconomic effects on Alaskans.”

While the Forest Service temporarily halted roadbuilding activities in the Tongass by issuing a memo in February subjecting them to a special review, it will still take months for the new proposal to be finalized. And Alaska’s exemption from the roadless rule is now in litigation, so the courts could also intervene in the case.

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council executive director Meredith Trainor said that she hopes the administration moves quickly to cement the change.

“The Trump-era decision to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule is one of the very worst pieces of forest policy we’ve seen in decades, and the sooner the Biden administration gets rid of the exemption and restores the national roadless rule, the better,” she said.

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