WASHINGTON – The Biden administration plans to restore environmental protections to Alaska's Tongass National Forest that had been stripped away at the end of the Trump administration.
According to a White House agenda of forthcoming regulatory actions published Friday, the administration intends to "repeal or replace" a Trump-era rule that opened about 9 million acres of Tongass, one of the world's largest intact temperate rainforests, to logging and road construction.
As president, Donald Trump exempted the Tongass from a Clinton-era policy known as the roadless rule, which banned logging and road construction in much of the national forest system.
Alaskan lawmakers have long said that lifting the roadless rule protections in their state would provide a sorely needed economic boost. Among those is Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican and a player in efforts to negotiate a bipartisan agreement on a sweeping infrastructure bill.
Environmentalists say that allowing road construction — a first step toward logging — could devastate the vast wilderness of snowy peaks, rushing rivers and virgin old-growth forest that is widely viewed as one of America's treasures.
Climate scientists also point out that the Tongass offers an important service to the billions of people across the planet who are unlikely to ever set foot there: It is one of the world's largest carbon sinks, storing the equivalent of about 8% of the carbon stored in all the forests of the Lower 48 states combined.
It is not clear if the Biden administration would return protections to the entire 9 million acres of the forest or to only part of it. The White House agenda document says that the federal government will formally issue a notice of proposed rule-making by August, with environmental analyses and a final decision to follow in the coming years.
In a 2019 draft environmental study of possible changes to protections of the Tongass, the U.S. Forest Service said it would consider six possible changes to the rule. One option would have maintained restrictions in 80% of the area currently protected by the rule; another would have opened up about 2.3 million acres to logging and construction.