Alaska Tribes, Conservation Groups, and Businesses Sue to Save the Tongass National Forest

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

In October, following Trump’s direct intervention and under pressure from Alaska state officials, the administration rescinded the ‘roadless rule’ in the Tongass National Forests, thus clearing the way to expand access of logging, mining, and other extractive industries.

The Trump administration has rolled back environmental protections, from the over touted yet actually modest recent levels  of protection other administrations. have pursued.

Trump’s policies have not proceeded unopposed. Last Wednesday, Reuters reported:

A coalition of Alaska Native tribes and environmentalists filed suit on Wednesday challenging a new Trump administration policy that opens vast swaths of the largest U.S. national forest to logging, mining and other commercial development.

The lawsuit, joined by tourism and fishing organizations, seeks to reinstate prohibitions on road-building through previously protected areas in the Tongass National Forest of southeastern Alaska, the world’s largest temperate rain forest

The Clinton-era rule, effectively banning timber harvests and mineral extraction in undeveloped areas of national forests across the country, was lifted for the Tongass in October, part of President Donald Trump’s aim of easing various environmental regulations opposed by industry.

It marked a victory for state officials who petitioned for the change because they said the roadless rule – closing off 9.2 million acres (3.7 million hectares) of the 17-million-acre (6.8-million-hectare) Tongass – had cost Alaskans jobs.

Before Trump, Democrats had a better environmental protection record – although I suspect that like so many aspects of public policy, when one gets into the weeds of details, the actual Democratic reality is often disappointing.

And according to Reuters:

The national roadless rule was imposed in 2001 in the last days of President Bill Clinton’s administration. It was challenged by Alaska and, at times, other states seeking exemptions. The most recent court rulings, in 2015 and 2016, upheld the rule for the Tongass.

As the Guardian tells the story:

Protection for the Tongass national forest in Alaska, one of the world’s last intact temperate rainforests, which plays a crucial role in fighting climate change, has been gutted by a recent US government decision to overturn a two-decade ban on logging and road building.

The widely condemned rollback jeopardizes the ancestral homelands of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people, and threatens the culture and food security of many indigenous communities who rely on the Tongass for hunting and gathering.

Trump intervened personally in this issue considered of great importance to Alaska officials. Over to the Guardian again:

The decision to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, which protects millions of acres of pristine forest nationwide, came after Trump personally intervened following a private meeting with the Alaska governor, Mike Dunleavy, aboard Air Force One.

The subsequent consultation process by the Forest Service was also mired in allegations of funding violations and bias towards the logging industry and the state of Alaska, which has long pushed for the Roadless Rule to be revoked.

My One and Only Alaska Road Trip

Two things I remember from a road trip I took to Alaska to which I treated my Mom to celebrate her eightieth birthday back in September 2015.

First, just how much of Alaska is national land. Readers familiar with the birding world will be familiar with the concept of listing – the extent to which avid birdwatchers will go to ‘list’ a bird not yet seen by that birder before. Well, that tendency describes my mother and national parks – she’s up for any detour that lets her log another one on her list. We visited many, including Denali, Wrangell-St Elias, Kenai Fjords, Lake Clark, and Ketmai. We didn’t get to the Tongass. According to the Guardian:

The Tongass is considered the “crown jewel” of national forests, sequestering huge amounts of carbon dioxide to keep the global-heating greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere.

Stretching 16m acres over 500 miles, the Tongass is unique for its size and biodiversity, with thousands of islands, waterways, glacial fjords and green valleys flanked by rugged mountains and sprawling forests of old-growth cedar, spruce and hemlock trees. It is home to myriad species including wild Pacific salmon, brown bears, wolves, Sitka black-tailed deer and bald eagles.

Jerri-Lynn here. Second, in Alaska the presence of extractive industries is ubiquitous. I was more attuned to signs of the petroleum industry. We spent a couple of days around Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil when it ran aground in March 1989, causing vast environmental devastation – no longer evident to casual visitors. We also rode alongside the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for hundreds of miles, on a long cold, grey, grim day’s bus journey we took from Fairbanks up to the Arctic Circle.

According to the Guardian, the stalking horse for the Trump policy change was the logging industry, instigated by mining interests:

“South-east Alaska’s future depends on safeguarding the natural capital that sustains our economy and cultural identity,” said Linda Behnken, commercial fisherman and executive director of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

The timber industry currently contributes less than 1% to the south-east Alaska economy, compared with 25% by the fishing and tourism industries combined.

Exemption from the Roadless Rule leaves more than 9m acres of forest vulnerable to a new wave of clear-cutting and roadbuilding, and threatens a key buffer against climate change. A 2019 study found that the Tongass absorbs more carbon than any other national forest, on a level comparable to the Amazon.

The Trump administration claims this will benefit the timber industry without hurting tourism and fishing. Yet its own analysis showed that the change would not create significant logging jobs or income, fueling fears that the real reason behind the controversial decision has not been divulged.

“This is not about timber sales; everyone knows that the logging industry is waning and dying. This is about mining,” said Kashudoha Wanda Loescher Culp, 72, a Tlingit activist and Tongass coordinator for the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network.

And I note a familiar theme: the failure of Democrats to extend and most importantly codify into strong legislative protection – renders their policies vulnerable to rollback when Republicans are in office, goaded by industry lobbyists:

“The 2001 Roadless Rule was a victory by the people but by not codifying the protection into law, forests like the Tongass were left deliberately vulnerable and that’s what we’ve seen industry take advantage of through Trump,” added Culp. “This an attack on our peoples and the climate.”

Now, we all know that the Trump administration’s environmental record has been woeful. Back to Reuters again:

But Wednesday’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Juneau, said the Trump policy imperiled indigenous tribal homelands and the ecosystem supporting southeast Alaska’s fishing and tourism industries, while disregarding sound science.

“The need for this litigation is a mark of shame upon the federal government for violating the trust and responsibilities it has to the indigenous peoples of the Tongass,” Robert Starbard, tribal administrator for the Hoonah Indian Association, said in a statement.

The lawsuit also said increased logging in the Tongass would undermine efforts to combat global warming because the forest is a significant natural repository for stored carbon.

“The complete removal of roadless protections on the Tongass will only worsen the climate crisis, not to mention fragment wildlife habitat and destroy salmon runs,” Andy Moderow of the Alaska Wilderness League said.

What Will Biden Do?

Given the state of Alaska’s role in pressing to overturn the roadless rule, citing the jaws mantra, I wonder just what the Biden administration will do. Reinstate the Clinton-era status quo? Increase environmental protections, in Alaska and elsewhere, to counter the global warming threat? Or in the Tongass, might the rest be some fudge that would leave some form of the Trump rollback in place.The Reuters account suggests the Biden position isn’t yet known and perhaps isn’t even yet set:

The incoming Biden administration could reverse the Trump policy and accomplish the lawsuit’s objective, plaintiffs’ attorney Kate Glover said.

The Guardian concurs it’s not certain the Biden administration will weigh in – leaving the fate of the roadless rule with the courts:

It could take up to a year for the federal court in Juneau to rule on the litigation, leaving the Tongass vulnerable to speculators unless the incoming Joe Biden administration intervenes to reinstate protection.

“If the judge doesn’t overturn the government decision, our way of life will be destroyed,” Joel Jackson, 64, president of the Organized Village of Kake, told the Guardian. “The Tongass has been our home for over 10,000 years, we need to protect what we have left.”

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