Biden Expands Protections for Tongass National Forest

Environmentalists hail move, ask president to protect all mature forests in the US as a strategic carbon reserve.

The Biden administration has announced major protections for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest today, ending most old-growth logging there and preventing further road building by reinstating the “roadless rule.”

An aerial view of Tongass National Forest, which stores the equivalent of 44 percent of the carbon stored in all national forests in the US and plays a vital role in combating climate change. ​Photo by Arabani / Flickr.

The decision, announced by the US Forest Service, reverses the Trump administration’s effort to rescind the roadless rule, enacted by President Bill Clinton in 2001, that banned road-building and logging in more than 9.3 million acres of forest that contain old growth cedar, spruce, and Western hemlock trees.

The protections, announced as part of US Department of Agriculture’s new Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, also include restrictions on industrial logging of old-growth stands across the entire forest. (The USDA oversees the US Forest Service.)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the proposal would provide $25 million for community development, and allow Alaska Natives and small-scale operators to continue to harvest some old-growth trees.

“This approach will help us chart the path to long-term economic opportunities that are sustainable and reflect southeast Alaska’s rich cultural heritage and magnificent natural resources,” he said in a statement. “We look forward to meaningful consultation with Tribal governments and Alaska Native corporations, and engaging with local communities, partners, and the State to prioritize management and investments in the region that reflect a holistic approach to the diverse values present in the region.”

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State, industry eye cache of rare earth elements under Bokan Mountain in Tongass National Forest.

At nearly 17 million acres, Tongass is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest and the largest national forest in the United States. It covers most of the southeastern panhandle of Alaska and has been compared to Amazonia in terms of its carbon absorption properties and its role in helping to stabilize regional and global climate impacts. (Though the Amazon has currently shifted to being a net source of carbon pollution due to rampant logging and slash and burn agriculture )

“Tongass is now one of the world’s most important temperate rainforests because of how much carbon it draws down from the atmosphere,” says Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project, who has been quantifying the biodiversity and climate benefits of the Tongass for over three decades. His award winning book, Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation, placed the Tongass on the global map of conservation importance.

The forest, which DellaSala calls “North America’s lungs,” stores the equivalent of 44 percent of the carbon stored in all national forests in the US and plays a vital role in combating climate change.

While welcoming the Biden administration move, DellaSala and other environmentalists called for more such action to protect the country’s forests given their capacity to absorb carbon. US forests absorb and store the equivalent of about 12 percent of the country’s annual carbon emissions.

“We now call on President Biden to follow this bold announcement with protecting all mature forests and large trees on public lands in a strategic carbon reserve to compliment US contributions to emissions reduction,” Della Sala says.

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