Did you know that the Tongass National Forest is the largest temperate rainforest in North America?
Unfortunately, this forest in southeast Alaska has been at the center of bitter politics for decades. In late January this year, the Biden administration reinstated protections for the forest after it had been removed by President Trump.
To understand why environmental groups, conservationists, and Native Alaskan tribal communities are so excited, let’s learn about the importance of the Tongass National Forest, its impact on the changing climate, and the geopolitics in the region.
Protections For Tongass
Covering an area larger than West Virginia, the Tongass is a rich habitat filled with 800-year-old trees, such as cedar, hemlock, and Sitka spruce. Bald eagles soar the skies, and the cold waters are home to schools of native fish. And this is where you will find the world’s highest population of black bears.
The thick forest also stores more than 10 percent of carbon sequestered by all U.S. national forests. This massive carbon sink also provides native Alaskan tribes with food, shelter, and medicines.
The bountiful trees naturally caught the attention of the timber industry, and attempts have been made to industrialize the Tongass by building roads, mining, and logging for wood.
In October 1999, President Clinton instructed the U.S. Forest Service to develop regulations for protecting national forests. Based on the best available science and the ecological, economic, and social values of American national forests, the U.S. Forest Service, in 2001, adopted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Its mission was to "protect the air and water quality and biodiversity, provide opportunities for personal renewal, and leave a legacy of natural areas for future generations."
The Roadless Rule would protect these forests from logging and the construction of roads through them. In total, about 58.5 million acres (2% of total U.S lands) are placed under this rule including the Tongass National Park.
For decades, Democrats and Republicans have fought over the legislation in Tongass. The Republicans as well as logging and mining companies argue for development and economy, while the Democrats and environmentalists support preserving this national forest.
The latest ruling by President Biden puts back the Roadless Rule to conserve 9 million acres of the Tongass; the ruling had been reversed by President Trump.
Mike Dunleavy, Alaska’s Republican Governor, decried the ruling as “a huge loss for Alaskans” because it would deprive Alaskans of jobs, renewable energy resources, and tourism.
However, the tribal leaders in southeast Alaska are excited. They praised the President’s ruling because it addresses the climate crisis, which impacts their tribes negatively. This new ruling also grants federal spending for sustainable development and forest improvement in Alaska.
Says Joel Jackson, permanent resident of the Tongass and the president of an Alaskan tribal community, "I describe walking into the (Tongass) forest as walking into one of the most beautiful cathedrals you'll ever find in the world". He hopes his descendants will not have to fight for that right too.
Sources: NY Times, NPR, Grist, BBC, USDA.gov