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Biden plans to reverse Trump’s Alaska policy. Here’s why it matters.

Tongass National Forest is a frequent target for political ping-pong between environmental and development interests.

View from the Nugget Falls Trail of Mendenhall Glacier
A view of Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls, in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty Images

On Friday the Biden administration revealed plans to reinstate environmental protections preventing logging and mining in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which the Trump administration had discarded. The 17 million acres in southeastern Alaska — the largest national forest in the US — have been a political battleground for over two decades, bouncing back and forth between the interests of logging industries and climate activists.

In 2001, President Bill Clinton finalized the “roadless rule,” which prohibited road construction on 60 million acres of forested land across the US and heavily restricted commercial logging and mining. But in October of 2020, then-President Donald Trump reversed these protections when he made the Tongass Forest exempt from the rule, doing what many developers and politicians in Alaska had been calling for since the Clinton era. But this reversal didn’t last for long.

The Biden administration vowed to undo damaging policies

Since his time on the campaign trail, President Joe Biden has been vocal about climate action, specifically in contrast with the policies that the Trump administration had passed. After the US, under Trump, left the Paris climate agreement and engineered the largest reduction of protected lands in US history, Biden entered office ready to undo the damage. On the same day Biden was sworn in, on January 20, 2021, he signed an executive order titled “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” which includes goals to reduce climate pollution, and to review and revoke action items set forth by the previous administration.

One of the most notable was the revocation of the March 2019 permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline. The project, begun in 2008 and only officially called off this month, has faced backlash at every stage of its development. Canceled by the Obama administration in 2015, and then renewed in 2017 when Trump invited TC Energy, the pipeline’s Canadian developer, to reapply for a permit, the Keystone XL is a perfect example of the back-and-forth that climate politics can have depending on who is in office.

The Tongass National Forest is yet another example. From a developer’s perspective, Alaska’s natural resources make it a gold mine. Its old growth forests make it ideal for harvesting timber, its coastal plains are plentiful in prospective drilling sites for oil and natural gas, and developing these opportunities could boost the state’s economy. No specifics as to how the “roadless rule” reversal will be carried out have been announced, apart from the intent to “repeal or replace” it, but Alaskan officials are aware of the economic loss, and have been vocal about the change.

“The Biden administration’s announcement is an unacceptable whipsaw in federal policy just months after an exhaustively-reviewed final rule was issued by the Trump administration that struck the right balance between conserving the lands we cherish and fostering opportunities for hard-working Alaskans,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said in a joint statement which also included comments from fellow Alaska Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, also expressed his disapproval of the Biden action on Twitter and later added, “We will use every tool available to push back on the latest imposition.”

Biden is currently attending the annual G7 summit, which is meeting this year in Cornwall, England. World leaders are expected to address environmental policy on Sunday.

Effects of logging could be dramatic to the “lungs” of North America

While politicians paint a picture of an oppressive federal government that would deny normal Alaskans access to “jobs and prosperity,” the narrative rings a bit hollow when set against actual feedback from the public. In 2019, the US Forest Service released a summary of over 140,000 comments on the “roadless rule” from the public which overwhelmingly supported the restrictions on forest development. In fact, one of the main points of rationale as to why the public thinks the “roadless rule” should remain was that it is vital to the tourism and fishing industries.

According to research by an economic development organization called the Southeast Conference, in 2019 Alaska’s timber industry (along with warehousing, utilities, and transport) only provided 4 percent of Alaskans with jobs in contrast to the 18 percent that were employed by tourism. Commercial fishing, tourism, and recreation are the fastest growing job sectors in southeast Alaska, according to the research. The Southeast Conference has not issued an official statement, but its executive director, Robert Venables, joined Gov. Dunleavy’s statement, in which he accused multiple administrations of “playing ping-pong” with Alaskans and the resources of the state.

In addition to providing jobs, as the United States’ largest national forest, the Tongass plays a significant ecological role in absorbing carbon produced in the US. According to National Geographic, the temperate rainforest absorbs approximately 8 percent of the pollution produced in the US. “While tropical rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the Tongass is the lungs of North America,” Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute’s Wild Heritage project, told the Washington Post. In fact, the United States Geological Survey recently estimated that if no trees were lost through logging and the land were left unmanaged in the Tongass, its carbon storage could increase by up to 27 percent by the end of the century.

Brown bears are fishing for salmon at Hidden Falls Hidden...
Brown bears fishing for salmon on Baranof Island in the Tongass National Forest.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty Images

The Tongass is also home to a thriving wildlife population, but Trump’s reversal of the “roadless rule” put this in danger. On land, the state of Alaska is home to 95 percent of America’s brown bear population, and the Tongass specifically contains the highest concentration of brown bears on the planet, while the forest’s 17,000 miles of clean freshwater provide optimal spawning conditions for wild salmon. Due to its high populations, the Tongass is sometimes called a “salmon forest” and, as it produces $60 million of wild salmon annually, this name is not far-fetched. But, if not for the “roadless rule,” this might have changed. Logging around a stream causes runoff like silt or dirt into the water, which can smother developing eggs, while dams, often used to maneuver logs down waterways, disorient the fish and disrupt their natural migratory patterns.

Damage to the Tongass goes beyond statistics for Alaska Natives

While this is a loss that can affect any Alaskan, to Alaskan Natives, losing wild salmon and the forests that house them means much more than a declining food source. Twenty-three percent of the region’s population comes from the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes, who have been fighting for recognition and for better treatment of their ancestral land which includes the expansive Tongass Forest.

While logging industries threaten food sources, cultural resources like Western red and Alaskan yellow cedar trees, which many communities use to make traditional regalia, baskets, and totem poles, are also threatened. “Cedar is the warp in the basket of who we are as a people. We weave our way around the cedar, keeping ourselves connected, strong and able to carry the tools and resources forward for the next generation,” Marina Anderson, a Haida and Tlingit woman who serves as the tribal administrator of the Organized Village of Kasaan, said in an article for Juneau Empire.

Anderson recently helped to organize a workshop on cultural uses of forest resources, taught by Native Alaskans, for employees of the United States Forest Service (USFS). For years, the USFS has provided manufacturers with commercial timber from the Tongass without communication with Native populations. The workshop aimed to teach USFS workers how to distinguish different types of trees that can be used to make canoes and totem poles, or trees that are rare and should be protected. While this type of cross-cultural exchange does not target the heavy hitters of industry or politics, it does make an impact on the people carrying out the work.

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