The Biden administration has announced it is ending large-scale, old-growth timber sales in the nation’s largest national forest - dubbed “the lungs of North America” - and will instead focus on forest restoration, recreation and other non-commercial uses.
The decision on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska reverses a Trump administration plan to lift restrictions on logging and road-building in the rainforest, which provides habitat for wolves, bears and salmon.
The Tongass Forest is a “carbon sink,” absorbing and locking in atmospheric carbon. It captures 8 per cent of annual US carbon emissions.
“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 PBS last year. “It’s America’s last climate sanctuary.”
Smaller timber sales, including some old-growth trees, will still be offered for local communities and cultural uses such as totem poles, canoes and tribal artisan use, the US Forest Service said.
The Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service, also said it will take steps to restore the so-called Roadless Rule for the Tongass.
The 2001 rule bans road construction and timber harvests with limited exceptions on nearly one-third of national forest land.
The Trump administration moved last year to exempt the Tongass, winning plaudits from Alaska’s Republican governor and its all-Republican congressional delegation.
The 2020 Trump decision was expected to adversely affected the ecology of a forest that has stood for thousands of years and provides important habitat for abundant wildlife—including rivers that host all five species of Pacific salmon, the economic backbone of southeastern Alaska communities.
By restoring roadless-rule protections, officials are “returning stability and certainty to the conservation of 9.3 million acres of the world’s largest temperate old growth rainforest,″ the Agriculture Department said.
Conservationists cheered the announcement, which the administration had signaled last month.
In a statement to The Independent, Ken Rait, a project director at The Pew Charitable Trusts’ who ran its Heritage Forest Campaign, said: “We are thrilled that rightful protections will be restored to the Tongass, and expeditiously.”
“Old-growth forests are critical to addressing climate change, so restoring roadless protections to the Tongass is critical,″ said Andy Moderow of the Alaska Wilderness League.
“With Alaska experiencing climate impacts more acutely than most, we shouldn’t be discussing the continued clearcutting” of a national forest long considered the crown jewel of the US forest system, he added.
Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy criticized President Biden’s announcement last month, planning to “repeal or replace” the Mr Trump’s 2020 decision. Gov. Dunleavy, a Republican, vowed to use “every tool available to push back.”
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, said the Biden administration was “literally throwing away” years of work by the Forest Service and Agriculture Department under Mr Trump.
“We need to end this ‘yo-yo effect’ as the lives of Alaskans who live and work in the Tongass are upended every time we have a new president,″ Murkowski said last month. “This has to end.”
The action on the Tongass follows a decision by the Biden administration last month to suspend oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
A 2017 tax-cut law passed by congressional Republicans called for two lease sales to be held in the refuge. A January lease sale in the refuge drew a tepid response.
In an action that angered environmentalists, the Biden administration has defended a Trump-era decision to approve a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope that Alaska political leaders have supported.
More than 9 million of the Tongass’ roughly 16.7 million acres are considered roadless areas, according to a federal environmental review last year. The majority of the Tongass is in a natural condition, and the forest is one of the largest relatively intact temperate rainforests in the world, the review said.
AP contributed to this report