Trump Pushes To Exempt Tongass National Forest of Alaska From Logging Restrictions

President Trump pushes to exempt Alaska’s 16.7-million-acre Tongass National Forest from logging restrictions which were imposed nearly 20 years ago and instructed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, as per the three people briefed on the issue, after a private discussion with the state’s governor aboard Air Force One on the matter.

Opening the forest to potential logging, energy and mining projects would affect more than half of the largest intact temperate rainforest of the world. It would undercut a sweeping Clinton administration policy known as the “roadless rule,” which has survived a decades-long legal assault.

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Trump has “redefined” a term “forest management,” since taking office and taken a personal interest in it as he told a group of lawmakers last year.

Tongass is a massive stretch of southeastern Alaska full of old-growth spruce, cedar and hemlock, rivers running with salmon, and dramatic fjords. Politicians have struggled for years over its fate. President Bill Clinton just days before leaving office in 2001 put more than half of it off-limits to logging, and he barred the road construction in 58.5 million acres of undeveloped national forest across the country. However, President George W. Bush made attempts to reverse that policy, holding a handful of timber sales in the Tongass before a federal judge reinstated the Clinton rule.

At a time when Forest Service officials had planned enough modest changes to managing the single largest holding of the agency, Trump’s decision to weigh in seems to revive a battle that the previous administration had aimed to settle.

In 2016, a plan had been finalized by the agency to phase out old-growth logging in Tongass within a decade. Congress has designated more than 5.7 million acres of the forest as wilderness and also to keep it undeveloped under any circumstances. If Trump’s plan succeeds, 9.5 million acres could get affected.

According to the regional development organization Southeast Conference, timber provides less than 1 percent jobs of southeastern Alaska compared to the tourism’s 17 percent and seafood processing’s 8 percent.

However, Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) along with other Alaskans have pressed President Trump to exempt their state from the rule, which does not allow roads other than the specific projects which Forest Service approves. It also bars commercial logging.

Murkowski said in a statement, Alaska’s entire congressional delegation and the governor have sought to block the roadless rule.

“It should never have been applied to our state, and it is harming our ability to develop a sustainable, year-round economy for the Southeast region, where less than one percent of the land is privately held,” she said. “The timber industry has declined precipitously, and it is astonishing that the few remaining mills in our nation’s largest national forest have to constantly worry about running out of supply.”

However, Alaskan leaders have found a powerful ally in the president. Speaking to reporters on June 26, after meeting with Trump during a refueling stop at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Dunleavy said of the president, “He really believes in the opportunities here in Alaska, and he’s done everything he can to work with us on our mining concerns, timber concerns; we talked about tariffs as well. We’re working on a whole bunch of things together, but the president does care very much about the state of Alaska.”

According to three people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, Trump expressed support for exempting the Tongass from the roadless rule during that conversation with Dunleavy. As per these individuals, earlier this month, Trump told Perdue to issue a plan to that effect this fall.

In case federal restrictions were lifted, it is not clear how much logging would take place in the Tongass because the management plan would have to be amended by Forest Service to hold a new timber sale. As per the 2016 plan, 962,000 acres found suitable for commercial timber and no more than 568,000 acres of that suggested should be logged.

A retired wildlife ecologist, John Schoen, who worked in the Tongass for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, co-authored a 2013 research paper, disclosed that in the last century, roughly half of the forest’s large old-growth trees had been logged. He added that the remaining big trees are the critical habitat of brown bears, Sitka black-tailed deer, a bird of prey called the Northern Goshawk and other species.

After frequent discussions with the advisers on managing the nation’s forests, Trump signed an executive order last year aimed at increasing logging by making federal environmental reviews of these projects more efficient. During a visit to Paradise, the California community devastated by a 2018 wildfire, the president was widely ridiculed after suggesting that the United States could curb such disasters by following Finland’s model, claiming that nation spends “a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem.”

President wants to weigh in on any significant forestry decision following the current and former aides. The way officials managed the state’s forests would force Trump to deprive California of federal funds; however, he did not follow up on the plan.

On the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation, one former Trump staffer said, forest policy has become “an obsession of his.”

This week when White House and Agriculture Department officials referred questions to the Forest Service, it declined to comment. However, as per the three people who spoke on the condition of anonymity, it was forging ahead with an exemption at Perdue’s instructions.

The environmental group Trout Unlimited president, Chris Wood, met with local business owners and conservation and outdoors organizations to urge federal officials to make more limited changes to the rule. According to him, the said shift could jeopardize the commercial, sport, and subsistence salmon fishing industry of the region.

Wild salmon, of about 40 percent make their way down the West Coast and spawn in the Tongass: The salmon industry generates $986 million annually as per the Forest Service estimates. The nutrients from the returning salmon sustain forest growth, while streams stay cool and trap sediment due to intact stands of trees.

Wood, who worked on the Clinton rule while at the Forest Service, said that in recent years, agency officials have “realized the golden goose is the salmon, not the trees.”

“They need to keep the trees standing in order to keep the fish in the creeks,” Wood said.

In the 1990s, the issue concerning what sort of roads should get built in the United States’ remaining wild forests, started intense battles, culminating in the 2001 rule that affected one-third of the Forest Service’s holdings in a dozen of states. However, some Western governors, including those in Idaho and Wyoming, challenged the restrictions.

There are also cases where conservationists and developers have forged compromises. Idaho officials opened up roadless areas of roughly 400,000 acres a decade before to make operations easy for a phosphate mine while protecting 8.9 million acres in exchange.

However, the consensus in Alaska has been more elusive, as many state officials argued that the limits are hampering development.

According to the agency, the Forest Service has approved at least 55 projects, including 36 for mining and 10 related to the power sector in roadless areas. Most of the applicants win approval “within a month of submission,” as per an agency fact sheet.

However, Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference, said years had been taken permitting for some projects that made them too costly to complete. He said a proposal that would have lowered electricity costs in the Alaskan community of Kake by connecting its supply to neighboring Petersburg won approval only after a lengthy review imposing requirements that raised the tag of price into the tens of millions.

“The roadless rule has shown itself to be very arbitrary and cumbersome,” Venables said in a phone interview. “Many projects have proven to be uneconomic because of the constraints here.”

Backing the current restrictions, many businesses operating in the region argued that the visitors get attracted because of the rugged landscapes of the forest, pristine terrain, and abundant wildlife.

Working as a boat captain in the 1980s, Dan Blanchard, owner, and CEO of the ad­ven­ture travel firm UnCruise Adventures, said in an interview that “we had a difficult time avoiding clear cuts in southeast Alaska.”

“The forest has come back,” said Blanchard, who has 350 employees and brings 7,000 guests to Alaska each year. “The demand for wilderness and uncut areas have just dramatically increased. Our view here is, there are very few places in the world that are wild. Here we have one, in southeast Alaska, and it’s being put at risk.”

Arindom Ghosh

A professional writer, blogger, copywriter, and a member of the International Association of Professional Writers and Editors, New York. He has been part of many reputed domestic and global online magazines and publications. An avid reader and a nature lover by heart, when he is not working, he is probably exploring the secrets of life.