Indigenous and green groups on Wednesday applauded the Biden administration for reinstating protections for millions of acres of wilderness in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest that were lifted during a Trump-era regulatory rollback spree.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Wednesday that it has finalized protections for the Tongass National Forest by restoring “longstanding roadless protections to 9.37 million acres of roadless areas that support the ecological, economic, and cultural values of Southeastern Alaska.”
The Roadless Rule was established in 2001 to protect wilderness areas in U.S. national forests from roads and logging. The administration of former President Donald Trump rescinded the rule in 2020 amid a flurry of regulatory rollbacks, prompting a lawsuit from a coalition of Indigenous, conservation, and business organizations. The Biden administration subsequently committed to reviving the Roadless Rule in 2021.
“As our nation’s largest national forest and the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, the Tongass National Forest is key to conserving biodiversity and addressing the climate crisis,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement Wednesday. “Restoring roadless protections listens to the voices of tribal nations and the people of Southeast Alaska while recognizing the importance of fishing and tourism to the region’s economy.”
According to the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife:
The Tongass contains rare expanses of pristine old-growth forest and as many as 17,000 miles of creeks, rivers, and lakes. These waters abound with all five species of Pacific salmon, which anchor the economy of Southeast Alaska. Approximately 1 million visitors come from all over the U.S. and internationally each year to see its glaciers, old-growth forests, and abundant wildlife.
The Tongass supports an incredible array of biodiversity and is home to the Alexander Archipelago wolf, brown bears, bald eagles, northern goshawks, and Pacific marten, among others. The Tongass is also one of the world’s largest carbon reservoirs, storing the equivalent of about 8% of the carbon stored in all the U.S. forests combined. In addition, a broad coalition of tribal leaders, outdoor recreation businesses, and conservationists in Southeast Alaska have fought to preserve the region’s remaining cedar, hemlock, and Sitka spruce trees.
“The restoration of National Roadless Rule protections for the Tongass National Forest is a great first step in honoring the voices of the many tribal governments and tribal citizens who spoke out in favor of Roadless Rule protections for the Tongass,” said Naawéiyaa Tagaban, the environmental justice strategy lead at Native Movement. “We are grateful to the Biden administration for taking this first step toward long-term protections for the Tongass. We hope that going forward true long-term protections will be established that do not rely on a rule which can be changed at the whim of a presidential administration.”
“The administration must look to tribal sovereignty and Indigenous stewardship as the true long-term solution for protections in the Tongass,” Tagaban added. “Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people have lived in and managed the Tongass national forest for generations; true protections will look like the restoration of lands into Indigenous ownership.”
Kate Glover, senior attorney at EarthJustice, said her group applauds the Forest Service “for making good on its commitment to tribes and to the climate by restoring the Roadless Rule across the Tongass. This is great news for the forest, the salmon, the wildlife, and the people who depend on intact ecosystems to support their ways of life and livelihoods.”
Teague Whalen, who owns Tongass Teague, asserted that “there are two uncompromising realities for the survival of life on this planet: clean air and clean water.”
“My hiking tours into the Tongass begin at the literal end of our road, where the Roadless Rule reinstatement will ensure that the Tongass can continue to be a lasting carbon sink,” Whalen added.