The Biden administration moved Thursday to reverse the Trump administration’s dismantling of protections in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest.
The U.S Department of Agriculture announced its intent to “repeal or replace” a Trump-era rule that obliterated protections for Tongass by lifting Clinton-era logging restrictions across 9.3 million forested acres and reclassifying 188,000 acres, including 168,000 acres of old-growth timber, as immediately suitable for harvesting.
While the agency’s announcement was limited on details, it said it will end large-scale commercial logging of old-growth timber within the forest and instead “focus management resources to support forest restoration, recreation and resilience, including for climate, wildlife habit and watershed improvement.” Limited harvesting of old-growth trees would be permitted for community and cultural use, including for constructing totem poles and canoes.
“This approach will help us chart the path to long-term economic opportunities that are sustainable and reflect Southeast Alaska’s rich cultural heritage and magnificent natural resources,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
The agency also plans to invest $25 million in community and economic development, it said.
Many environmentalists see safeguarding the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, known as “America’s Amazon,” as critical to fighting against global climate change. It stores about 8% of the total carbon isolated in forests in the Lower 48 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and an astonishing 44% of all carbon stored in national forests across the United States.
Thursday’s action stems from an executive order that President Joe Biden signed his first day in office directing the Department of Agriculture to review Trump’s rollback in Tongass. It came as welcome news for conservationists, some of whom had grown frustrated in recent months by the administration’s lack of a strong commitment to halt logging of mature and old temperate forests in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
“Once they are gone, these are trees that have stored [carbon] for hundreds of years, it will take that long to gain it back,” Beverly Law, a professor emeritus at Oregon State and an expert on the forest carbon cycle, told HuffPost in May. “It also means that most of that carbon is going to go back to the atmosphere in the next few decades. And that’s not going to help us get any closer to meeting our climate goals. It’s going to make the situation worse.”
The announcement comes one day after Brazilian researchers found that parts of the Amazon rainforest in South America are now emitting more planet-warming carbon dioxide than they absorb, a signal that the world’s largest rainforest may have reached a tipping point. Biden has sought to pressure Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, to curb deforestation in the Amazon, only to have the Brazilian government point out the United States’ own history of intensively logging.
“With Alaska experiencing climate impacts more acutely than most, we shouldn’t be discussing the continued clearcutting of a natural climate solution that exists right in our own backyard,” Andy Moderow of the Alaska Wilderness League said in a statement Thursday. “Alaskans love their old-growth forests and the timber industry in Southeast is now a relic of the past, and the Biden administration should be commended for looking forward to what kind of world we want to leave to our kids. The Tongass is an unmatched treasure and with smart action now we can properly manage it for future generations.”