Conservation advocates are gearing up for a major win. On Friday, the Forest Service said it would “repeal or replace” a Trump-era rollback that allows companies to build roads and other infrastructure in much of America’s largest national forest. It could be biggest victory for public lands the Biden administration has delivered yet — if the details pan out.
Three months before leaving office, President Trump opened up more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, to road building, logging, mining, and other development. That decision reversed protections under the Alaska Roadless Rule, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 2001. The new development was first reported by the Washington Post.
“Taking an axe to Tongass old-growth protections was among the most reckless and irresponsible of the previous administration’s environmental rollbacks. Indigenous communities, hunters and anglers, the tourism and fishing industries, those who care about protecting our planet’s biodiversity and climate — all opposed removing roadless protections on the Tongass,” Andy Moderow, Alaska director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement.
If Biden puts the 20-year-old protections back on the books, it could mean the Tongass will once again be shielded from destructive industry, protecting the people and wildlife who call it home. But as Moderow pointed out, the White House hasn’t said exactly what protections it will instate.
“We applaud the Biden administration’s and the Forest Service’s commitment to addressing that rollback,” Moderow said, “but also want to make clear that a full reinstatement of roadless protections is a necessity.”
The forest plays a crucial role in climate efforts, as it sequesters 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year. The U.S. is home to 154 national forests, but recent research found the Tongass holds 44% of the total carbon stored by all of them. Chopping down trees in the Tongass for lumber or to clear space for development removes that essential source of sequestration, which could turn the carbon sink into a carbon source.
Development would also erode the forest’s incredible biodiversity. The Tongass is full of old-growth cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees, as well as five varieties of Pacific salmon, grizzly bears, Sitka black-tailed deer, bald eagles, and rare varieties of wolves and goshawk birds.
Several Indigenous communities, including the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, also call the Tongass National Forest their home and rely on it to live. Development could endanger sites long-considered sacred by Native people and threaten their water supply and ability to perform traditional cultural practices.
This past January, a coalition of Indigenous organisations, Alaska businesses, and environmental organisations sued the U.S. government in an attempt to block the Trump administration from stripping protections. Let’s hope that Biden reinstates full protections for the forest immediately, making that case obsolete.
Biden should go even further and protect land across the U.S. On his first day in office, Biden issued a pause on new oil and gas leasing on public lands, and this month, he announced a plan to suspend oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, undoing a policy Trump pushed through last year. But last month, his administration also said it will defend another Trump-era massive oil and gas drilling project in the Arctic, and writer Branko Marcetic recently reported that the administration has approved nearly 1,179 drilling permits on federal lands so far.
Clearly, Biden’s got a ways to go to show he’s serious about conservation. Reviving protections for the Tongass would be a good start.