A notice, posted by the Forest Service on Wednesday, stated that all 16.7 million acres will be opened up in Tongass, dubbed “America’s climate forest” by environmentalists. The Trump administration is removing safeguards that have been in place for almost 20 years.
The Tongass spans more than 25,000 square miles (64,750 sq km) in southeast Alaska and is America’s largest national forest.
With only days to go until the presidential election, the Trump administration announced that the Tongass will be exempt from the 2001 Roadless Rule, “which prohibits timber harvest and road construction/reconstruction with limited exceptions within designated inventoried roadless areas”.
The 2001 federal rule restricted logging and road-building in designated wild areas. This means, as of Thursday, it is now legal for logging companies to carve roads through the forest and cut timber across 9.3 million acres.
The Tongass is an old-growth forest with Sitka spruce, western hemlock, western red cedar, and Alaska (yellow) cedar.
The Independent has contacted the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forestry Service, for comment.
The US’s largest environmental organisation, the Sierra Club, has called Tongass “America’s Climate Forest”, and said the Trump administration is jeopardising the subsistence culture of Indigenous communities, the forest’s role in fighting the climate crisis, and already imperilled wildlife.
“Preserving the Tongass is a matter of survival. A standing healthy forest is absolutely essential to the subsistence survival of Indigenous peoples. It’s also essential for mitigating the climate crisis that threatens us all. We will continue to fight for the Tongass and those who depend on it. We will challenge the lifting of restrictions against logging in the forest's roadless areas at every turn," Sierra Club Alaska Chapter director Andrea Feniger said on Wednesday.
The Tongass National Forest is a vast carbon sink, absorbing more carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere than it releases, playing a critical role in mitigating global warming. Temperate rainforests have the densest accumulation of above-ground carbon in the world, according to physicsworld.
Scientists estimate that the Tongass holds between 10 and 12 per cent of America’s stored carbon in national forests, according to a report by Juneau Empire.
Supporters of the exemption say it will increase access to federal lands for timber harvests and the development of minerals, creating economic growth.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican representing Alaska, wrote in The Washington Post last year why she supported Trump’s proposal for the Tongass.
“The one-size-fits-all roadless rule is an unnecessary layer of paralyzing regulation that should never have been applied to Alaska," she wrote.
“A full exemption from it has always been my preference, as well as the united preference of our state’s congressional delegation and that of Alaska’s governors, regardless of party. It will allow Alaskans to create needed opportunities for a sustainable year-round economy, while still being good stewards of our lands and waters.”