The Trump administration is proposing to allow road building and logging in over half of the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rainforest in North America, in another blow to the environment under the President’s watch.
The US President Donald Trump has instructed Alaska’s top officials to overturn the no roads policy in the Tongass National Forest to open it up for logging and other economic interests such as mining.
The Tongass is located in South East Alaska on the Pacific coast and is home to huge ancient trees, which are home to a vast array of wildlife, including an estimated 40% of wild salmon, which spawn there.
The 16.7 million-acre Tongass covers 80% of land on the 500-mile Pacific coastline of south-eastern Alaska and as a temperate forest sequesters a huge amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
However, despite Trump’s ambitious plans for the wilderness, 5.7 million acres must remain off-limits to any kind of development under any circumstances.
The Tongass has enjoyed a high level of environmental protection including a complete ban on road-building since 2001, just before President Bill Clinton left office. President George Bush tried to reverse the no roads policy but was blocked by a federal judge in 2011.
The US Forest Service will publish a draft environmental impact statement later this week, which will be subject to public comment for 60 days. It is envisaged that this will help the Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to come to a final decision. However, it is understood by US media that Trump has requested that the Tongass be exempt from any limits on logging.
Trump has strong support from all Alaska’s’ representatives in Congress who are all Republican.
“As Alaskans know well, the Roadless Rule hinders our ability to responsibly harvest timber, develop minerals, connect communities, or build energy projects to lower costs — including renewable energy projects like hydropower, all of which severely impedes the economy of Southeast,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) in a statement.
However, timber and logging do not even employ one percent of the local population compared to 8% who work in seafood processing and 17% who work in tourism. Tourism, in particular, depends on the pristine wilderness of the region being protected.
‘Roads Tend to Change Everything’
This has led to accusations among many locals that federal officials are ignoring the interests of local businesses.
“They’re just railroading this idea that we need full-scale logging back on the Tongass National Forest,” Keegan McCarthy, who owns a hunting and guiding business in the Tongass, which employs 20 people, told the Washington Post.
However, Earthjustice, an environmental group based in Juneau, the Alaskan capital, which is located in the Tongass is planning to challenge the move in the courts, and past court battles indicate that it has a good chance of winning.
“The bottom line is that the [forest] agency will face a heavy burden to justify this exemption. President Trump’s attack on the Tongass National Forest threatens an irreplaceable national treasure,” said Eric Jorgensen, the managing attorney ay Earthjustice.
Jorgensen added that time may be on their side, as the administration wouldn’t be able to finalise its plans until next year and the forest service will have to carry out an environmental analysis on the same of land and revamp its existing management plan for Tongass and by then Trump will have served his first term and hopefully be out of office.
Scientists that know the area say that road-building and logging will fragment critical habitats for wildlife and will remove older trees that help trap sediment from getting into rivers. Once the old trees are cut down they are irreplaceable and even if new trees are planted they will look like a plantation not a forest and in any case will take years to grow to maturity.
“You put the roads in and that tends to change everything,” Gordon Reeves, who worked as a research scientist in Alaska and the Northwest USA for 35 years and now advises the forest service, said in a recent interview with US media.
Main photo from Juneauempire.com
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