Responding to a 2018 petition submitted by the State of Alaska, the Trump administration is proposing to exempt Alaska’s giant Tongass National Forest from the Clinton-era Roadless Rule, a nationwide policy, which has been in effect since 2001.

The Roadless Rule banned all logging, commercial development, and road construction in Tongass, the largest national forest in the United States. Tongass, with its 16.9 million acres, is located in the Alaska Panhandle in the southeastern part of the state.

Under the proposal, the U.S. Forest Service would “remove all 9.2 million acres of inventoried roadless acres and convert 165,000 old-growth acres and 20,000 young-growth acres previously identified as unsuitable timber lands to suitable timber lands.”

But allowing logging in designated areas of the temperate rainforest, and opening up other economic opportunities to local residents, evoked howls of protest from environmentalists and their political allies in Washington.

“Once you have clear cut, the remaining trees or the edge of the forest becomes (sic) much more susceptible to what we think of as windthrow, or wind disturbance,” Northern Arizona ecologist Michelle Mack told Wired (Oct. 17).

Rep. Raul Grijalva, (D-Arizona), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, was also aghast.

“Weakening protections for one of the most important ecosystems our planet has left is a colossal mistake, and this Committee has questions about how this decision was made that this administration should prepare to answer,” he said.

Last-Minute Clinton Administration Move

For nearly two decades, however, serious questions have been raised about the last-minute inclusion of Tongass in the Roadless Rule. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 and the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990 collectively set aside 5.6 million acres in Tongass as wilderness. Eight days before President Bill Clinton left office in January 2001, his administration’s Roadless Rule designated another 9.4 million acres as roadless areas in Tongass.

“In combination, these laws and regulation have resulted in the loss of 4,200 jobs in the timber industry and substantial interference in mining and renewable energy development,” former Alaska Senator and Governor Frank Murkowski pointed out in the Anchorage Daily News (Oct. 21).

Alaska lost no time in challenging the Roadless Rule. In 2001, the state sued the Forest Service, arguing that including Tongass in the rule violated the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Following a June 2003 settlement with the Justice Department, Tongass received a temporary exemption from the Roadless Rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the Forest Service. The Secretary of Agriculture pointed out that the “socioeconomic costs to local communities of applying the roadless rule’s prohibitions to the Tongass, all warrant treating the Tongass differently from other national forests outside of Alaska.”

The Secretary added:

“Because most Southeast Alaska communities are nearly surrounded on land by inventoried areas of the Tongass, the roadless rule significantly limits the ability of communities to develop road and utility connections that almost all other communities in the United States take for granted.”

But in 2009, environmental groups challenged the process by which USDA had temporarily exempted Tongass from the Roadless Rule. The Obama administration did nothing to provide 21st century infrastructure to the 32 communities surrounded by Tongass. All told, six Alaska governors and the state’s entire congressional delegation have, over the years, sought relief for the people living in the area.

In proposing to scrap the roadless designation for Tongass, the Trump administration has determined that the plight of local residents cannot be allowed to continue.